Three grocery chains have pulled an imported jelly candy from store shelves after the product was linked to the deaths of two children in the San Francisco area.
Albertson's and Costco today decided to remove the popular jelly-like confections made in Taiwan by Sheng Hsiang Jen Foods Co. On Wednesday, Safeway ordered the candies removed from stores in Northern California, the only region in which the company sold the product under the Jelly Yum brand.
"We're taking action in response to publicized concerns, mainly in California," said Albertson's spokeswoman Jenny Enochson. Albertson's ordered the candies removed from all of its 1,700 stores in 31 states at least until the Food and Drug Administration issues a ruling on the safety of the product.
FDA spokeswoman Laura Bradbard said the agency had decided to investigate the candies, which have a controversial history in Japan, where similar products were dubbed "deadly mouthful."
Warnings From Health Officials
In the United States, the candies are sold under names like Gel-ly Drop, Fruit Poppers and Lychee Flavor Mini Gel Snack. The gel candies are individually packed in small, soft plastic dispensers that resemble coffee creamer containers. They're typically sold in plastic jars, often in a store's candy section, although Albertson's also displays the fruit-flavored sweets in its produce section, Enochson said.
Public health officials in Santa Clara County, Calif., this week warned about the candies, urging parents to cut the confection into small pieces before giving them to children. In recent days public health officials in Canada have also expressed concern about imported jelly candies made by Sheng Hsiang Jen Foods.
The company issued a press release saying the candies are safe and not responsible for the deaths last month of 3-year-old Deven Joncich, and 12-year-old Michelle Enrile after the sticky gel couldn't be dislodged from their throats.
Enrile's family sued the manufacturer last year after their daughter allegedly became brain-damaged from choking on one of its imported candies.
"[The] girl was eating a Lychee Flavor Mini Gel Snack when it became lodged in her throat so firmly that it completely shut off her airway, causing her to suffer massive hypoxic brain injury," according to Terry O'Reilly, the family's attorney. "Four properly performed Heimlich maneuvers could not dislodge it."
‘A Huge Revenue Stream’
O'Reilly's associate, Niall Yamane, argued the case in May before an arbitrator, who awarded Enrile's family $25 million. "Sheng, the manufacturer, stands to lose a huge revenue stream if it is forced to withdraw from the market," Yamane said.
The candies are sold in 11 countries, mostly along the Pacific Rim. The candies feature gel made of konjac, a binding agent made from processing tubers of the konnyaku root. The sweetened gel surrounds a chunk of fruit. "Konnyaku is similar to gelatin but is 10 times stronger," Yamane said. "Even when you boil it it won't dissolve."
The confection was developed in the early 1990s in Japan, where it became a big hit but was soon implicated in eight deaths and more than 50 choking injuries.
Taiwanese companies began manufacturing the candies in the mid-'90s, Yamane said. Consumer officials in the Taiwanese government also became alarmed and recommended that the makers find a substitute for konnyaku and change the shape and size of the individual candies to minimize choking risks.
The candies have a short history in the North America but they are gaining in popularity. They're often sold as a fruity, fat-free alternative to sugary snacks.