Nine people died in Japan over the past week after choking on the country’s traditional New Year’s rice cakes.
The rice cakes, known as mochi, are traditionally eaten in large quantities during the holidays. They can be served in soup, with sweet soy sauce, wrapped in dried seaweed or toasted. Though several people die while eating the cakes each year, the number is unusually high this year.
According to Japanese media, nine people died after choking on the cake, while another 13 ended up in hospital in serious condition. In 2014, only four deaths were reported; in 2013, only two. More than 80 percent of rice cake deaths are in the elderly, who find it difficult to swallow the sticky cake.
To prevent such deaths, Japan’s emergency services warn people each year to cut the mochi into bite-sized pieces for children and the elderly. Those at risk should chew each piece and not eat the cake by itself.
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Some have compared the rising number of deaths from mochi to a fruit jelly with konjac yam powder that choked 22 people in 2008. Now, the jelly is more heavily regulated, while mochi has gone unregulated.
“The only reason mochi isn’t regulated is because it’s a traditional food item,” one Japanese blogger wrote. “Is it just easier to pick on a limited number of konjac jelly makers, compared to countless mochi producers?”
To prevent deaths, a firm in Osaka developed an easy-to-swallow mochi with an enzyme that makes the cake less sticky. Four other traditional confectionery firms in Kyoto have also developed a safer version of mochi.
On average, each Japanese person eats almost 2 1/2 pounds of mochi each year, according to the mochi trade association.