Warnings About Choking May Be Required in Stores

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The New York Sun

Popcorn, pistachios, Tic Tacs, and Skittles are the latest threat to local children that the City Council is moving to neutralize.

Council Member Domenic Recchia, who represents parts of Brooklyn, has introduced a bill that would require store owners across the city to put up signs or labels warning that certain bite-size foods could endanger the lives of children under the age of 5.

While the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene would determine the list of foods requiring labels, Mr. Recchia said the bill would likely include grapes, peanuts, chewing gum, small hard candies, and candy necklaces, among other products. The American Academy of Pediatrics also lists hot dogs, apple chunks, raw vegetables, and cheese as choking hazards for children under 4.

If the bill passes, vendors who fail to alert customers to food that has been designated as a choking hazard will be fined up to $250 a violation.

The measure follows a host of paternalist policies enacted by the city in recent years, including bans on trans fats in food, smoking in bars and nightclubs, making too much noise, and the use of the n-word.

Mr. Recchia said yesterday that he was moved to take up choking prevention after a 2-year-old boy in his district, Brandon Martinez, died in 2007 from suffocating on a grape, a fruit that health experts consider dangerous for children under 4 years old if it is not skinned and cut in pieces.

According to Mr. Recchia, the bill could help prevent similar tragedies by raising awareness of dangerous foods among parents.

“A lot of parents don’t have any idea what choking hazards are. They would never think of a grape as dangerous,” the council member said in an interview. “Do you know how many parents don’t know that popcorn can choke a child?”

Mr. Recchia compared the bill to recent legislation requiring calories to be displayed in chain restaurants, saying the intention in both cases was to promote awareness about food safety. “If they can put the number of calories on products sold to the public from fast food restaurants, then we could put labels on products that are dangerous to children,” he said.

Some New York residents, however, said they are worried that the bill goes too far by placing the burden of good parenting on store owners.

Jude Dove, 42, a chef and father in New York, said the law appeared to be excessively broad. “Putting a sign over grapes — it seems a little much,” he said.

A cashier at a deli in TriBeCa, Alam Kidsid, 24, said he supported the bill as a means to educate parents. “It’s always a good idea to protect kids,” he said.

Businesses owners who would be affected by the bill have expressed concern that the proposed regulations might make their operations more difficult. A lobbyist for the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, Richard Lipsky, called the bill “overly burdensome.”

“In an economic climate where food stores, bodegas, and supermarkets are going out of business, it is not the time to add regulatory burdens that make it more difficult for these neighborhood stores to survive and service their community,” Mr. Lipsky said in an interview.

While Mr. Recchia’s office is still in the process of performing a cost analysis of the proposal, he said yesterday that the bill was not intended to hurt businesses. He said the legislation would be flexible to stores’ needs and would let vendors indicate that foods were a hazard by placing signs near products instead of using individual labels.

State and federal legislators have made attempts to legislate choking warnings in the past. State Senator Carl Kruger introduced a bill in 2007 that would require labels on “popcorn, chewing gum, hard candies, raisins, peanut butter, nuts or seeds which present a choking hazard to children under four years of age” and fine vendors $100 for every day they failed to comply. A bill introduced in 2003, the Food Choking Prevention Act, authored by Rep. Mike Honda, a Democrat of California, would empower the federal government to require warnings on foods they deem a choking threat as well. Neither bill was passed into law.

Safe Kids USA, a nonprofit organization that promotes child safety, has reported that 169 children under the age of 14 died from choking on an object in 2001, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

The New York Sun

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