'Choking Hazard' Labeling Bill Proposed in New York

NEW YORK – Legislation has been proposed in New York state that would require a wide variety of grocery products be labeled as choking hazards to children under 4. The state bill, modeled on proposed national legislation that has been bandied about recently, would apply to nuts, hard candy, gum, peanut butter, and popcorn.

New York State Senator Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn) offered the legislation this week after three-year-old Deonte Riley choked to death on a popcorn kernel while watching Aliens Vs. Predator with his parents and older brother at a Valley Stream, Long Island movie theater on Sunday.

In an interview with Progressive Grocer, Kruger said the items on his list were drawn from one created by the National Academy of Pediatrics. It includes nuts, peanut butter, hard candy, popcorn, raisins, and grapes.

Kruger said the bill's impact on the supermarket industry "would be negligible. If it's a packaged item, it would be the responsibility of the manufacturer or the packager to have that warning label the same way that they have product ingredients."

However, items that are packaged by retailers, such as nuts sold in a plastic clamshell through the produce department, would also require a warning label. "It would be a printed label or stick-on label or something of that sort," Kruger said. For bulk items, like loose nuts, he said the warning
could be applied to the plastic bags that the items are placed in by the consumer.

"At the same time, I think from a legal/ethical standpoint it exculpates the supermarket industry because now they're put into a position by not putting on a label," Kruger said. "If a child, God forbid, were to choke on some pistachio nuts that were bought in a local Key Food, the attorneys would bring Key Food into the suit. If they affix a warning label, I think that helps their cause, rather than hurts it, so I think it is a pro-industry measure. The cost to the industry would be negligible. It would be whatever the cost of another stick-on label is," he said.

Kruger said he hopes that national legislation will be passed as well. "Obviously I'm just looking at it in New York State and that doesn't help the children in New Jersey or Connecticut who are faced with a similar situation," he said. "I think that this incident [on Long Island] was a wakeup call for all of us to say that parents should be more prudent with what their children play with, and what
they eat, but we in the public sector have an obligation to underpin that state of mind with a warning label."

The prospect of another labeling mandate doubtless would leave many in the food industry gagging.

"The costs of any labeling measurements have to be measured against their ultimate benefit to consumers," commented Richard Martin, vice president, communications for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "Consumer safety is always a top priority for our members, but we haven't seen this legislation, and can't comment on it until we take a close look at it," he added.

Last summer, the Center for Science in the Public Interest teamed with U.S. Representatives Mike Honda (D-California) and Mike Ferguson (R-New Jersey) to urge the industry to put choking warning labels on a wide variety of products, including hot dogs, sausages, candies, and grapes.

"Legislation is in committee, and hopefully there will be a hearing next year," Adam Pearson, communications coordinator at Washington-based CSPI told Progressive Grocer.

When asked by PG how a warning label could be applied to grapes, which are usually sold as a random weight item, Pearson said, "I don’t know. It would have to be on the actual packaging. Most grapes come pre-packaged."

-- Richard Turcsik
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