All My Children

Jared Wade


April 1, 2010

As with most things involving safety, much of the momentum that gave the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) broader authority and stronger enforcement backing was created by kids getting hurt. Children's toys and babies' cribs were found to contain lead, and parents and consumer groups decided that it was time to ramp up protection. Now, according to one group of doctors, there is another menace threatening the nation's offspring: food.

In February, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a policy statement on choking prevention for children that highlighted hot dogs, carrots and hard candy as major dangers to the youth of America. According to the statement's lead author, Dr. Gary Smith, a child dies from choking on food every five days in the United States, and 17% of the kids under 10-years-old who die are killed by hot dogs being lodged in their throats.

In an interview with Time, Dr. Smith broke down exactly why the hot dog is such threat. "If you were to take the best engineers in the world, and you said to them, 'design for me the perfect plug for a child's airway,' you couldn't do better than a hot dog," he said. "Unfortunately, it's exactly the right shape of the airway, it's the right diameter-it forms a plug, completely sealing off the upper airway...It's almost impossible to dislodge. Then it's only a matter of minutes before there is irreparable brain damage and even death."

In addition to "redesigning" man-made foods such as hot dogs, marshmallows and candy, the AAP cites the CPSC's National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), which monitors emergency rooms visits caused by consumer products, as an example of how choking hazards can be better managed. By analyzing NEISS data, regulators are able to determine which consumer products are truly dangerous. Injury and death records are highly detailed and tell officials whether or not a boy was hurt by a Tonka dump truck or a hula hoop made by Mattel. Through its database, any trends are easily noticed and action can be taken.

By contrast, the FDA and the Department of Agriculture, which regulates meat products, including hot dogs, does not maintain such thorough data. According to Smith, the most they usually ever find out on a systematic basis is that a child died of "choking on food."

Without better information, it will be hard to determine if hot dogs and other inconveniently shaped foods are a true threat to our nation's children or if learning to swallow properly is just an inevitable hazard of youth. You gotta eat, right?

Jared Wade is a freelance writer and a former editor of Risk Management.