Can you choke on Gerber puffs?

Maybe you've passed this one around: Dad gives kid a Gerber snack. Kid nearly chokes to death on snack. Dad saves kid. Grandma reads label and finds that product should be eaten within 5 days. Dad warns internet of danger posed by Gerber snacks.

Lest you haven't seen this post before and are worried whether your pantry contains any killer snacks, let's pause and consider the terrifying incident as described by the father and the resulting warnings issued by news outlets that picked up the story.

In a facebook post about his daughter's near-fatal choking, Justin Morrice shares the terrifying experience of watching his young daughter choke on a Gerber Lil' Crunchie: "I set some of these cheesies on her highchair tray as a dessert for finishing her snack....well in less then 10 seconds I had turned to rinse her bowl in the sink...turned back and saw her gasping for air. She was trying to cry but no sound was coming out..." That story resonates with any parent who has watched a child choke: the speed with which it happened, the terror and helplessness that set in, the relief that came with his child's cries. 

But Morrice's next points are perhaps unfair, both to Gerber and to other parents. After checking the small print on the side of the Lil' Crunchies can, Morrice asserts that you are supposed to "throw contents out" after five days. But the packaging photo he posted to accompany his story does not include that language. The warning instead reads "Use within five days after removing seal for optimal freshness."

Although the packaging in Morrice's photo is from a Canadian version of the product, the U.S. version of the packaging includes an identical warning. "Freshness," it should be noted, is not the same as "safety," and even if the food was, as Morrice claims, like squishy ear plugs, we don't know if, once those squishy ear plugs were dampened by a child's saliva, they would generally be considered safe to eat. 

Morrice writes that he does not blame Gerber for his daughter's accident, but instead blames himself for not reading the label and encourages parents not to be "lazy" with reading labels. The Today Show was not as charitable as Morrice. In their coverage, they expand Morrice's story to include a researcher who claims that the snacks become choking hazards if not consumed within an hour of opening.

This reporting is dangerous for two reasons. 

First, the reporting includes the word "puffs," which is a different Gerber product. That helps stoke fear about a completely different product that was not part of the original story. In fact, in my first viewing of the tale, it was a Gerber Puff, not a Lil' Crunchie, that nearly killed the kid. Second, and much more concerning, the research referred to in the piece came from a presentation at the Pediatric Academic Societies conference. The abstract of that presentation does not appear to be available online, but there is a summary of the presentation available on the American Academy of Pediatrics website:

11 blinded researchers were given each food at random and asked to dissolve it in their mouth without the use of teeth. They sampled each product four times--twice when it was fresh and two more times after it had been left out for at least an hour. They then recorded how long it took to for the food to dissolve completely or become small enough that swallowing was unavoidable.

This is great material for a conference presentation: it presents the kernel of an idea that, with more rigorous study, could prove valuable. But until the researchers do more with this study--enroll more people, develop a link between dissolved food and choking prevention, etc.--the findings shouldn't have immediate effects on the foods we eat.

This seems a very small study to make determinations about the safety of any particular food. Although the study may have proved that some snacks are more easily dissolved than others, and that some snacks became harder and chewier after being opened for one hour, neither of these pieces of information by itself suggests that the snacks are dangerous, as the snack in question--the Lil' Crunchie--includes labeling that says it's for use by kids who use their jaws to eat food. 

Parenting horror shared on social media become a game of telephone: the messages get more distorted and terrifying with each share. PC:  dimitrisvetsikas1969  for  Pixabay .

Parenting horror shared on social media become a game of telephone: the messages get more distorted and terrifying with each share. PC: dimitrisvetsikas1969 for Pixabay.

If I were in Morrice's position and had watched my child choke on that Lil' Crunchie, you can bet that would be the last Lil' Crunchie he'd ever eat. After my own satsuma incident, I didn't give oranges to my child for over a year. These behaviors are wholly irrational, but completely understandable, because it's hard to shake the memory of your child choking. By avoiding that one scary food--the one that our kid choked on, we feel like we've made the world a little safer for our children.

When we share our most terrifying personal stories and use them to make widespread claims about what parents should do, those claims often get wider with each retelling. Morrice's shared his story to get parents to read labels more carefully. Sharing his story and other stories like it can affect other parents' behavior. The parents spreading Morrice's story around might be watching their children's eating more carefully. They might be reading packaging more thoroughly. These are reasonable responses to reading such a scary story.

But when these individual stories get covered on a national level, we all start to go a little crazy. Should all Lil' Crunchies be consumed within an hour of opening the can? That is impractical to impossible. But even if all parents sharing snack foods with their children threw out all leftovers after 61 minutes, children would still choke, because choking is one possible consequence of eating. Sometimes, larger future studies will confirm earlier conclusions, but at other times, future studies will fail to confirm or even refute prior claims. 

Each time we accept the conclusions of the small, unrepeated studies found in news stories like The Today Show's coverage of Morrice's story, we may feel that we are making the world safer. And that's a powerful feeling, because making concrete changes based on the news stories we read can give us a few moments of relief from worrying about our kids. But that fleeting feeling of safety also makes us susceptible to accepting the next safety claim...and the next...and the next...until all of our children are on liquid diets.