Lax import laws let in a `deadly mouthful'

This Just In...

November 14, 2001|By DAN RODRICKS

TALK ABOUT your wake-up call: First thing yesterday morning, I found out that the fruity gel candies I had allowed my children to eat with abandon on Friday - and which I had offered to my neighbors during leaf-raking Saturday, and which I had given to more than a dozen boys and girls after a youth hockey game Sunday, and which I had mentioned positively in this space Monday - pose a serious choking risk and have been banned from further import by the Food and Drug Administration.

How do you like them strawberries?

I spent the rest of the day making calls to the FDA, to the Asian supermarket where I bought the "treats," to the company that distributes the product in the United States and to the parents of all the hockey players on my daughter's team. I placed what remains of the strawberry-flavored candy under house arrest.

Until I got a call from a lawyer who knows something about this, I was unaware that these gel candies, typically packaged as individual servings in small, thimble-shaped, foil-top plastic containers and featuring an embedded chunk of preserved fruit, have been associated with numerous chokings in Asia and the United States.

The candies, some of which are marketed as Jelly Yum and Fruit Poppers, contain konjac jelly - "konnyaku" on the label of the kind I purchased Friday - and apparently this ingredient keeps the candies from quickly dissolving. In its alert, the FDA said: "Although the contents [of the plastic containers] look like gelatin products commonly found in the United States, such as `jello,' these small cup-like gel candies maintain their product characteristics - shape, texture, firmness - without melting when placed in the mouth." It's suspected that the combination of the konjac and the shape, size and slipperiness of the candy increases the choking risk. The Consumer Product Safety Commission took part in the FDA's analysis and agreed about the choking hazard.

According to a USA Today story in late September, the popular candies have been linked to eight deaths and 80 choking incidents in Japan since 1995. The candies have been dubbed "the deadly mouthful" over there.

There was little publicity about all this here until the death of a 12-year-old California girl, Michelle Enrile, who fell into a coma after swallowing one of the Taiwanese-made gel candies at her home in San Jose. The candies have been linked to the deaths of two other children in the western United States and one in Canada, according to the USA Today story. Three major retail chains have yanked them from store shelves.

I've seen them in small convenience stores in Maryland. I bought a few for my kids last summer, and they took a liking to them. Friday, I bought a jug of "Mini Fruit Jelly," described as "a healthy snack for the new millennium," at Han Ah Reum, the Asian supermarket that opened in Catonsville in August. The colorful 53-ounce jug contained a few dozen of the candies and carried a fine-print warning: "This product contains fruit chunks and must be chewed thoroughly before swallowing. Not recommended for children under 3 years old."

Yesterday I spoke to an official of Han Ah Reum and told him that the government considers the product hazardous. He seemed concerned and promised to investigate. I placed a similar warning call to a California company listed on the jug.

This episode seems to indicate a gray area of government regulation - the potential problems of a new food product entering the United States retail scene without much pre-market scrutiny. There appears to be room for broader FDA authority in approving not only food additives but the products themselves as they seek space on American store shelves. Without that kind of policing, how do we know if imported products contain FDA-approved ingredients?

Thankfully, there were no problems reported by my kids, their chums or my neighbors. (Some of the little hockey players didn't even eat their "treat," and, when last I saw her, the other girl on my daughter's team was staring at the candy, not eating it.)

"We hope to prevent any more of these products from getting into the country," said Bernard A. Schwetz, the FDA official who issued the warning, "but in the meantime, people need to be aware of konjac minicup gel candies that may still be in the marketplace."

I think I've done my part on this for now. More later.

TJIDAN@AOL.COM is the e-mail address of Dan Rodricks. He can also be reached at 410-332-6166.

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