Despite years of rumors about the quality of their meat, the hot dog industry is facing new and very different safety concerns, namely the choking hazard that its products pose to young children if swallowed improperly.

In a paper published in the February 22 edition of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Pediatrics called for labels to be placed on all of the nation’s hot dog and sausage packages to warn parents of their potential as a choking hazard.

eating-hot-dog-featured.jpgGary Smith MD, the paper’s lead author and director of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Center for injury Research and Policy, argued “We have laws and regulations in this country that require warning labels to be placed on toys that pose choking hazards…However, there are no such regulations on high risk foods–and children are much more likely to put food in their mouths than a toy.” Smith went on to say that the hot dogs’ long cylindrical shape seems tailor-made to serve as a “perfect plug for a child’s airway” and that a “redesigned” product may be necessary to mitigate safety concerns.
Each year more than 10,000 children under the age of 14 are sent to the hospital because of choking.  Of those seeking treatment, 77 die each year from choking-related injuries. Hot dogs, a favorite item to serve picky young eaters, are the most common food for young children to choke to death on, typically claiming 13 lives a year.

While the Consumer Products Safety Commission requires labels warning of choking hazard for all products that could be choking hazards to children 3 years old and younger if swallowed, no such alerts are required for food, and it is that lack of awareness that specifically concerned the authors of the paper.

Janet Riley, president of the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council, responded to the findings, saying, “Ensuring the safety of the foods we service to children is critically important for us,” and was quick to point out that nearly half of all hot dog and sausage packages already have warning labels suggesting that to avoid the choking hazard the product should be sliced up before it is served to young children.

Adding more choking warnings to hot dog packages, however, seems far more likely than the total product redesign that the American Academy of Pediatrics has called for.

Hot dogs and sausages do big business–in 2008 alone over $3.4 billion worth of the tubed meats were sold in the United States. Indeed, sausages are as old as civilization itself, when they were created as a way to preserve quickly spoiling meat. Hot dogs are America’s most popular sausages, and while their roots may trace back to Germany, they are considered as quintessentially American as baseball and apple pie.

Of course, any call to fundamentally reconfigure a national icon will be met with protests, thus we will have to wait and see if a rare but tragic event will forever change this symbol of America.

Photo:  Boy eating hot dog.  Department of Energy Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory Daughters and Sons to Work Day (cropped).