Are Hot Dogs Killing Our Kids? Uh, Not Really

Last Updated Feb 26, 2010 1:57 PM EST

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is lobbying for enhanced federal oversight of hot dogs and other foods that pose a potential choking hazard to children. The argument favoring regulatory change, however, is being spun from 29-year old data.

Nutritionists and public health wonks have long warned of the assault to our health from ingesting hot dogs -- from the fats clogging our arteries to meat juices overflowing with carcinogenic preservatives. And now comes word from the Temple Mount that frankfurters could rob our babies of their last breaths.

"Choking on food causes the death of approximately one child every five days in the United States," declared the AAP in Policy Statement - Prevention of Choking Among Children, published in the February 22 online issue of Pediatrics.

Let me say it up front: My intent is not to devalue or diminish the pain and anguish suffered by any family who has experienced such a tragic and traumatic loss. Nonetheless, by using fear as its calling card the nation's largest pediatric association is guilty of exploiting any parent's worst nightmare:
Hot dogs accounted for 17% of food-related asphyxiations among children younger than 10 years of age in a 41-state study.
With that lede, the AAP is calling on food manufacturers to affix "choking hazard" labels to packaging, and urging that companies redirect some research and development expenses toward the redesign of foods: Drafting new shapes, sizes, and textures less likely to get (allegedly) wedged tightly in a child's airway passage.

It turns out, though, that the AAP took that data from a 1984 paper that primarily aimed to raise awareness of food choking hazards. In addition to questioning whether three-decades old data represents present day risk, Trevor Butterworth, editor of Stats.org, voices legitimate concerns with the academy's use of flawed analysis to buttress their argument, the most telling of which I found to be the following:
A close look at this paper shows that the 17 percent was composed of 16 choking deaths from hot dogs and one from a sausage from a total of 41 states over three years. All the children who died were aged three or under. So, to put the risk into perspective, approximately five children died each year in the U.S. from choking on a hotdog....
To be blunt, not quite as alarming as one death every five days!

Some hot dog brands, such as Oscar Mayer (Kraft Food) or Ball Park Franks from Sara Lee, already have warning labels about choking. Not enough is the apparent sentiment vocalized by the policy paper's lead author, Gary Smith, in a Time.com interview:
If you go to the grocery store today, you can find hot dog packages with statements that say that "this poses a choking risk to young children." The problem is, not all manufacturers are doing it, and [among those who are] the labeling is in very small print, mixed in with other information. It's not at all conspicuous, and there's no consistency in the message. We just need to do what we already know how to do for toys and apply it to food. That does not have to be a government mandate. Lots of our current consumer product safety guidelines are voluntary standards.
"When I want your opinion I'll give it to you," mocked business writer Laurence J. Peter (The Peter Principle).

Further evidence that Smith is looking to push government control and mandates down our collective throat -- legislating behavior -- is found in the academy's policy architecture, which includes a proposal to grant new policing powers to the FDA: An authority to recall food products that "pose a significant choking hazard." No doubt, labeling that doesn't meet the academy's approval would warrant such draconian overkill. At present, forced recalls only come about when food is (indeed) unfit for consumption, such as hot dogs or cold cuts contaminated with E. coli or Listeria bacteria.

Mr. Smith, before you go to Washington, why don't you try some delicious pureed hot dog?

Smith's willingness to embrace more regulation is also tellingly revealed in another comment he gave Time.com: "We know from a century and a half of experience with public health problems that the best way to prevent a problem is to design it out of existence."

While preventable deaths are indeed tragic, pushing for more regulatory intervention will likely prove more costly than successful in reducing an already low fatality rate. Smith and the academy might better serve first-time parents with the reminder of an educational lesson learned from one-time Jenny Craig spokeswoman Monica Lewinsky: Don't put things in your mouth that are bad for you.
  • David Phillips

    David Phillips has more than 25 years' experience on Wall Street, first as a financial consultant and then as an equity analyst for several investment banking firms. He sifts through SEC filings for his blog The 10Q Detective, looking for financial statement soft spots, such as depreciation policies, warranty reserves and restructuring charges. He has been widely quoted in outlets such as BusinessWeek, The International Herald Tribune, Investor's Business Daily, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, and The Wall Street Journal.

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