Food maker pulls ‘konnyaku’ sweets

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MannanLife Co., Japan’s largest maker of “konnyaku” (devil’s tongue) jelly, said it halted production and shipment of all products Wednesday after it was reported that 17 children and elderly people have choked to death on konnyaku jelly since 1995.

In the most recent case, a 1-year-old boy in Hyogo Prefecture died late last month while eating the jelly.

The Gunma Prefecture-based maker of Konnyaku Batake brand products will begin advertising campaigns, including TV commercials, to alert consumers to the products’ danger, as retailers still have outstanding inventory to sell, an official in the firm’s product liability department said.

Konnyaku jelly, sales of which are restricted in the United States, the European Union, Australia and South Korea, is popular with Japanese consumers as a healthy, low-calorie sweet. It is widely sold at supermarkets, convenience stores and drug stores.

The jelly has a rubberlike texture, harder than regular jelly, and thus small children and elderly people can have difficulty trying to swallow it.

Konnyaku jelly products could soon disappear altogether from store shelves because other makers may follow suit, Japan Konnyaku Cooperative Federation official Masayuki Suzuki said.

“MannanLife’s move is too late. Why did it take 13 years?” asked Hisa Anan, secretary general of the National Liaison of Consumer Organizations. “The government’s responsibility is also considerable, as its lack of action cost 17 lives.”

Seiko Noda, minister for consumer affairs, urged MannanLife executives during their Oct. 2 meeting to recall the products.

Separately, in response to a series of fatal incidents, the konnyaku federation Friday submitted a report on preventive measures to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry. Steps include enlarging warning signs on product packages and setting up a committee to scrutinize the shape and ingredients of the products, the federation’s Suzuki said.

“We decided to suspend production and shipments because we do not have enough time to enlarge warning signs and carry out the other measures the authorities requested,” said the MannanLife official, who declined to be named.

MannanLife, a member of the federation, commands a 60 percent to 70 percent share of the konnyaku jelly market, Suzuki said.

Of the 17 fatal cases, at least three involved MannanLife products, according to the National Consumers Affairs Center. Ace Bakery Co., based in Aichi Prefecture, is blamed for at least two other deaths, but in many cases the maker is unknown, a center official said.

The EU bans the sale of konnyaku jelly outright, while the U.S., Australia and South Korea regulate the minimum product size so that consumers can easily chew it.