OFFICIALS warn of Popular Imported Candy; Gel Creates Choking Hazard

Thursday, August 16th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) _ A popular imported jelly candy was pulled from the shelves of hundreds of Northern California supermarkets after it was blamed for the choking deaths of two children.

Grocery giants Safeway pulled Jelly Yum brand candies from 200 of its Northern California stores last week. Wednesday another large chain, Albertson's, followed suit in 195 Northern California stores. Albertson's gel candies were sold under the names Fruit Poppers and Gel-ly Drop.

``We felt we needed to do this immediately in California. We've taken them out of stores and locked them up,'' Stacia Levenfeld, a spokeswoman for Albertson's, told the San Jose Mercury News. ``The FDA (federal Food and Drug Administration) has not given us any indication if these are safe or not.''

The candy is linked to the deaths of Deven Joncich, 3, of Morgan Hill in November and Michelle Enrile, 12, of San Jose last month. In both cases, rescue workers said they couldn't dislodge the sticky gel from the children's throats.

Safeway said it stocked the candy only in Northern California. Albertson's representatives did not immediately return calls seeking to see if their decision affected stores in other regions.

The gel candies are individually packed in small, soft plastic cups and are sold in bulk in plastic jars. The brightly colored candies have become popular over the last two years among American children after they met with success in Asia.

The sweet gel, called conjac jelly, usually comes with a piece of fruit inside, and health officials warn does not readily dissolve in the mouth. Some jars carry a labels warning that the candies are not safe for children under age 6, others age 3.

The Santa Clara County Department of Public Health at a news conference Wednesday warned the public about the candy, recommending that it be cut in pieces before it's given to small children.

``We decided to do something after the death of Michelle on July 30 and after learning of another death in Seattle,'' said Joy Alexiou of the county Health Department. ``We want to make sure parents read those warning labels.''

Health department officials in King County, Wash., posted a similar advisory on their Web site last summer after a child died from choking on gel candies.

Around the world, more than a dozen deaths are tied to the candy. Most are in Asia, where the candy originated in 1995. In Japan, the candy has gotten the nickname ``deadly mouthful.''

Taiwan-based Sheng Hsiang Jen Foods Co., the manufacturer of the gel candies blamed for the two deaths in the Bay Area, maintains the candy is safe. ``Whether it was a mini-fruity gel, a piece of meat, a hot dog, or any hard candy, the result could have been the same,'' a company statement said.

An FDA official said the agency is aware of the situation and continues to look into the two California deaths. But when the FDA will comment on the issue is unclear.