%mlink(STRY:; PHOTO:; AUDIO:%)

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Federal health officials, frustrated after months trying to rid stores of a type of imported candy that caused six children to choke to death, have seized $500,000 worth of the sweets from a California warehouse.

The distributor, New Choice Foods, denies its brands of the once popular Asian-made jelly candies are risky and said Thursday it plans a court challenge of the Food and Drug Administration's seizure.

At issue are brightly colored candies made of thick, fruit-flavored gel in mouth-sized servings that people suck out of small plastic cups.

Highly popular in Asia, conjac gel candies became a hit in the United States about two years ago, until reports that six U.S. children and about a dozen in other countries had choked to death on the sweets. The gel is so sticky that rescue workers have reported being unable to dislodge it from the throats of choking children.

The FDA stopped imports in October, and has prodded more than 20 different makers and distributors to recall their brands.

But New Choice Foods, one of the country's biggest conjac candy distributors, refused to recall its versions. Late Wednesday, U.S. marshals seized $500,000 worth of the candy.

``The FDA has had this product seized so that these choking hazards will not be distributed to the public,'' said FDA Deputy Commissioner Dr. Lester Crawford. ``They pose an unacceptable risk to U.S. consumers.''

Children choke on hot dogs and peanuts, too, yet they're not being banned, responded Arturo de Jesus, marketing manager for Irwindale, Calif.-based New Choice.

Company attorney Larry Pilot said New Choice-distributed brands bear a warning that the candies aren't for children under 5.

``To that parent who either didn't understand or ignored the warning label, the question is why did you feed that to your child? One has to assume, hope, expect that the parent would be more responsible,'' he said.

Pilot said New Choice will appeal the seizure in court, arguing that the few deaths despite widespread international sales of conjac suggest FDA overreacted.

Seized late Wednesday were candies sold under the brand names New Choice Mini Fruity Gels, Yummy Choice Fruit Gel Snack and Sheng Hsiang Jen Conjac Coconut Jelly.

Made by Sheng Hsiang Jen Foods Co. of Taiwan, the brands were imported for sale to large grocery stores and small Asian and Hispanic markets.

Three of the U.S. deaths may be associated with New Choice-distributed products, said FDA enforcement chief John Taylor.

Taylor would not discuss New Choice's hot-dog argument. But he noted that FDA consulted with choking experts, including scientists at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, to determine that the conjac-style sticky candy, regardless of brand or maker, is hazardous.

Attorney Pilot questioned why, if conjac is dangerous, the FDA dismissed without investigation reports of three conjac-linked chokings in 1999 and issued warnings only after chokings made headlines last August.

The FDA wouldn't address the 1999 reports.

New Choice has been unable to sell conjac candies here since August, when major grocery stores quit selling them even before the FDA became involved. It now wants to return the candies to Taiwan, de Jesus said. But FDA rules forbid exporting foods deemed ``adulterated'' for sale in other countries.

Since October, FDA workers have gone door-to-door to small markets around the country hunting conjac candy still on the shelf. The agency warns children and the elderly to avoid the candies, also known as konjac, konnyaku, yam flour and glucomannan.

___

On the Net: FDA on seizure: http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/NEWS/2002/NEW00810.html