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Labels urged for foods that can choke kids

By Shelby Lin Erdman, CNN
Children 4 and younger are at the highest risk for choking on food, the American Academy of Pediatrics says.
Children 4 and younger are at the highest risk for choking on food, the American Academy of Pediatrics says.
  • One child in U.S. dies every five days from choking on food, pediatrician group says
  • American Academy of Pediatrics wants a food labeling system warning parents of risks
  • Group lists hot dogs as the highest risk food for young kids; grapes, raw carrots called risky
  • Pediatrician group wants data collected on children's deaths, injuries from choking on food

(CNN) -- It's a silent, often overlooked danger that kills dozens of children every year, and it's easily preventable: choking to death on food.

Now the largest pediatrician group in the United States is calling for warning labels on foods that pose the highest risk for choking.

The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates at least one child in the United States dies every five days from choking on food. The academy rates choking as the leading cause of death among children 14 and younger.

The group is issuing a new policy statement calling on the government and manufacturers to implement a food labeling system warning parents of these risks.

"This is a call to action," said Dr. Gary Smith, a pediatrician and immediate past chairman of the Committee on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"For many years, the U.S. has protected children from choking on toys. We have legislation. We have regulation. We have voluntary standards. We have labeling. We have recall programs," said Smith, also director of the Center for Injury, Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

"But we don't have a consistent set of measures that have been put together for prevention of choking on food."

Children 4 and younger are at the highest risk for choking on food. Most only have their front teeth. They can bite off a piece of food, but they don't have molars in back to grind it.

"There are certain types of food that have high-risk characteristics that pose severe choking risks," Smith said. "For example, foods that are round or cylindrical in shape and are roughly the diameter of the back of a child's throat -- these types of foods can completely block the child's airway. When that happens, the child cannot move air. They then lack oxygen. And if that obstruction is not removed within a short amount of time, brain damage and death will ensue. So these are very serious choking risks."

The American Academy of Pediatrics lists hot dogs as the highest risk food for young kids. Grapes, raw carrots, apples and peanuts are also dangerous. Smith said he has treated many children who later died from choking on hot dogs and grapes.

Video: Build a better hot dog

"If I took the best engineers in the world and asked them to design the perfect plug for a child's airway, they couldn't do much better than a hotdog. It is exactly the right size and shape to wedge itself down into the back of a child's throat. It's compressible so it fits in very snugly, and it's almost impossible to dislodge."

Katherine Zuehlke knows this problem firsthand. She had a close call with her 2-year-old daughter, Tiffany, but her quick thinking helped save the child's life. Zuehlke said a candy-coated peanut became lodged in her daughter's throat.

"We flipped her over and started to pat her back pretty heavily," Zuehlke told the pediatrician group. "We were all really scared."

Zuehlke was lucky. As many as 100 families a year are not -- a rough estimate of how many children choke to death on food every year, according to the most recent statistics from a 2002 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.

There is no centralized system for collecting data on child death and injury from choking on food.

Smith and the American Academy of Pediatrics want to see that change. Smith said he believes it's important to start a central database that includes those kinds of statistics.

"We can do it now for toys and other consumer products. But we can't do it for food. That's one of the things we're calling for in this new policy statement," he said.

In the meantime, the American Academy of Pediatrics lists a few tips on its Web site to help parents with problem foods. It suggests parents:

• Cut hot dogs lengthwise and grapes in quarters. This changes the dangerous shape of the food, which can block throats of young children and even teenagers.

• Avoid giving toddlers other high-risk foods such as hard candy, nuts, seeds and raw carrots.

• Never let small children run, play or lie down while eating.

The American Academy of Pediatrics' new policy statement on foods that pose a high-choking danger for children 14 and under appears online. It's scheduled for publication in the March issue of the journal Pediatrics.