TOKYO - Fifteen people aged between 55 and 90 were taken to hospital in Tokyo on Monday (Jan 1) after choking on sticky rice cake, a traditional New Year snack in Japan, reported local media. Two of them died.
Thirteen of them are in their 70s or older, according to Kyodo news agency.
The Tokyo Fire Department said the two people who died were a man in his 50s and another in his 80s. Seven others were in critical condition when they arrived at hospital.
Each year the chewy snack claims several lives in Japan, prompting annual warnings from officials. For the past 10 years, according to Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the vast majority of those who died were senior citizens.
Last week, the Tokyo Fire Department called for the public to exercise caution in preparing and eating the traditional snack, particularly young children and the elderly.
Every year, the emergency services officials issue advisories ahead of the New Year to warn people of the choking hazard posed by the sticky rice cakes, also known as mochi.
They recommend that the rice cakes be cut into small pieces before popping them into the mouth. The rice cakes must be chewed properly before swallowing. Otherwise, the sticky mochi might get stuck in the throat, causing suffocation.
Yet despite the warnings, deaths linked to the dish made from glutinous rice make headlines every year.
At the turn of 2014 to 2015, the number of casualties peaked at nine. In 2016, it was one, while two people died last year (2017).
Many more end up in critical condition in hospitals across the country.
The Japanese consume an average of 1kg of mochi a year each, mostly during the first week of January, according to the mochi trade association.
In 2001, a 70-year-old man choking on mochi rice cake was saved when his daughter sucked it out with a vacuum cleaner, reported Kyodo News. But the local fire department officials said at that time such a drastic measure was not recommended as it could end up hurting the victim.
To help prevent choking tragedies in one of the world's fastest-ageing societies, Japan's food industry has created what is known as "Engay" foods specially for its elderly.
The process involved pureeing an original food product and combining it with a gelling agent. Then the product is molded into the original appearance of the food, reported NPR website.