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Spicy ‘One Chip Challenge’ to be pulled from US shelves after death of teenager

NEW YORK – A tortilla chip company that challenged consumers to eat a single chip dusted with two of the hottest peppers in the world is pulling the product from retail shelves, the company said on Thursday.

The move followed the death of a teenager whose family said he had died after consuming the chip.

“The Paqui One Chip Challenge is intended for adults only, with clear and prominent labeling highlighting the chip is not for children” or other sensitive groups, the company, a subsidiary of the Hershey Co., said in a statement on its website.

“We have seen an increase in teens and other individuals not heeding these warnings.”

As a result, the company said, it was working with retailers to remove the product from shelves “out of an abundance of caution.”

Paqui also said it would offer refunds for the product, which was priced at about US$9.99 (S$13.60) for a single serving. Paqui chips are made by Amplify Snack Brands, which Hershey bought for about US$1.6 billion (S$2.18 billion) in 2017.

The chips come in a coffin-shaped box with a label that dared customers to wait as long as possible before eating or drinking anything after consuming the chip, and then to post their reactions on social media.

This year’s challenge produced many videos showing people begging for water or milk or putting huge portions of ice cream into their mouths after eating the chip.

The chip involved in the challenge comes dusted with the Carolina Reaper, a type of red pepper. It has been measured at more than 2 million Scoville heat units, the scale used to measure how hot peppers are. The chip also is dusted with the Naga Viper, a type of hot chili pepper. Naga Viper has been measured at just under 1.4 million Scoville units. Jalapeño peppers are typically rated at between 2,000 and 8,000 units.

The chip was one of the last things Harris Wolobah, a 14-year-old, ate before he died, his family said.

Lois Wolobah, his mother, said her son’s school in Worcester, Massachusetts, called last Friday to tell her that he was sick. When she arrived at the school, Harris was doubled over with stomach pains. About two hours later, he was rushed to a hospital, where he later died.

The cause of his death was not immediately clear, but Wolobah told The New York Times that she believed the chip had something to do with his death. A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said it would take up to 12 weeks before autopsy results were available.

“I just want there to be an awareness for parents to know that it’s not safe,” Wolobah said in an interview this week.

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Several people who tried the chip told The New York Times that they experienced painful stomach aches after eating the chip.

A spokesperson for Paqui, Kim Metcalfe, said that the company was “deeply saddened” by Harris’ death.

“We care about all of our consumers and have made the decision to remove the product from shelves,” Metcalfe said in a statement. “The product’s label clearly states it is not for children or anyone sensitive to spicy foods or who has food allergies, is pregnant or has underlying health conditions.”

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Metcalfe emphasized that the removal of the chip was not a “recall” but rather a “voluntary retrieval.”

Until Tuesday, marketing materials for the challenge asked participants, “How long can you last before you spiral out?” and gave special rankings depending on how long they could hold off from drinking something for relief. By Thursday, all that remained on the challenge’s website was the company’s new statement, the original warning label and a shortened FAQ.

It was not immediately clear how many of the “One Chip Challenge” packages had been sold since the latest flavor was released in August. A local CBS affiliate in Boston said Wednesday that it had found the chip at a grocery store about 10 minutes from Harris’ school. NYTIMES

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