Young children especially at risk for death by choking on certain foods

Food producers could save the lives of dozens of kids each year by including safety notices on food products that pose choking hazards, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Family members who have lost children to food-choking incidents today joined Representatives Mike Honda (D-CA), Mike Ferguson (R-NJ), and CSPI in urging the food industry to place safety notices on hot dogs, candies, grapes, and other common choking hazards.

“A simple notice instructing a parent to chop food into small pieces or refrain from serving certain foods to young children could save many kids’ lives,” said CSPI legal affairs director Bruce Silverglade. “This is such an easy way to prevent so many tragic deaths and injuries.”

At least one child dies from choking on food every five days in the U.S., and more than 10,000 children are taken to hospital emergency rooms each year for food-choking injuries. Hot dogs, sausages, candies, gum, grapes, apples, carrots, marshmallows, popcorn, raisins, cheese cubes, peanut butter, and nuts pose the greatest choking dangers to children. Children under age five are at greatest risk for choking injury and death.

“Many more children would be alive today if the choking hazards posed by gel candies and other foods marketed to children were investigated quickly and pulled from store shelves,” said Representative Honda. “While we have a great system in place to warn parents of choking dangers posed by toys, the FDA’s oversight of food choking hazards is ineffective. My legislation will give the FDA the tools they need to save lives and prevent tragedies.”

Representatives Honda and Ferguson introduced the bipartisan Food Choking Prevention Act after young children in their districts choked to death on gel candies or hot dogs. Their bill would encourage the Food and Drug Administration to develop food-labeling regulations for products that pose choking hazards to young children.

“As a father of three, children's safety is something I take very seriously,” Representative Ferguson said. “This legislation will provide the FDA the authority to better warn parents of potential hazards allowing them to better protect their children.”

A small number of companies voluntarily include choking safety notices on the labels of some of their products. “These companies have responsibly decided on their own to warn parents of choking hazards,” said CSPI staff attorney Aliza Sperling. “If they can do it, why can’t their competitors? We urge other companies to protect children from food choking dangers,” she said.

Products that currently include choking safety notices on their packages include Kraft’s Louis Rich Franks and Oscar Mayer Franks; Ballpark Singles hot dogs; Kraft’s Natural Cheese Cubes, Creme Savers hard candy, and Lifesavers Fusions; Hershey’s Jolly Rancher hard candy; Mars’ Starburst; and Nestle’s Wonka Gobstoppers.

Products that do not provide safety notices include Armour Star hot dogs, Nathan’s hot dogs, Kraft’s Louis Rich Sausage, Jimmy Dean Sausage, Hershey’s Milk Duds, ConAgra’s Orville Redenbacher popcorn, Unilever’s Skippy peanut butter, and Mars’ Peanut M&M’s. CSPI wrote to those and other manufacturers of more than 300 brands of hot dogs, candy, popcorn, and other foods to urge them to voluntarily add safety notices to their products.

“Deaths from choking are preventable,” said Dr. Elizabeth Edgerton, a pediatrician at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington. “By providing labeling on foods with potential risks, parents can be constantly reminded of the potential choking risk to their children.”

“Requiring safety labels that inform parents how to serve certain foods to children under age five is a modest first step toward reducing the number of young children who die each year from choking on food,” said Dr. Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Columbus Children's Hospital, who co-authored a major study on food choking hazards. “The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has labeling requirements for toys that pose a choking hazard to young children, yet what is more likely to go into a child’s mouth, a toy or food?”

Joan Stavros Adler, whose son Eric died in 2001 after choking on a hot dog, said new regulations can help save lives. “Clear and simple labeling standards can prevent many of the horrible deaths such as the one suffered by Eric and dozens of Americans every year.”