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GUEST COMMENTARY: A redesigned hot dog might be more safe, but is it still a hot dog?

Friday, May 21, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 1:18 p.m. CDT, Friday, May 21, 2010

As unlikely as it may seem, there are some among us who want to redesign hot dogs so they won’t be shaped like, well, like hot dogs. If they have their way, tube steaks would no longer be tubular. The very idea seems kind of un-American. The hot dog is one of our favorite foods, served at backyard barbecues and baseball parks, purchased on urban street corners from vendors, and burned to a crisp over campfires nationwide.

The idea of non-tubular hot dogs raises some interesting questions. If frankfurters were not shaped like frankfurters, what shape would frankfurters be? If hot dogs were not shaped like hot dogs, what would become of hot dog buns? If wieners are no longer shaped like wieners, what will we call wiener dogs?

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The real question, however, is why would anyone want to change the shape of hot dogs? It turns out it is a food safety issue having nothing to do with the content filling the casing – the safety issue is the tubular shape of hot dogs. The American Academy of Pediatrics is suggesting the change in order to curb sometimes fatal incidents of children choking when eating hot dogs. Foods with cylindrical or round shapes pose a choking risk for children, according the academy.

My first reaction was to consider the idea more intrusive than an actual safety issue until I saw a television program featuring actual treatment of trauma patients. One patient was in serious condition and unable to breathe until a large chunk of hot dog was removed from his esophagus – and the patient was an adult who should have known to chew before inhaling.

Apparently, the risk is very real. Choking is one of the biggest causes of emergency room visits, ranks near the top cause of death for children between 1 and 5 years of age and accounts for 17 percent of food-related asphyxiations in children 10 and under, according to the academy. There are other foods capable of plugging a child’s airway such as candies – particularly hard candies, grapes, marshmallows, nuts, peanuts and peanut butter.

One similarity I notice about these foods is they are generally popular with kids who are often finicky eaters. They are also "fun" foods, the kind kids eat as snacks or at parties. Talking, horseplay and laughing with a mouthful of food can indeed be dangerous, and if the food is the shape and size of the windpipe – well, suffice it to say when foods plug the airway the fun is over. Whether hot dogs evolve into wedges, squares or ground wienie patties is questionable and it is unlikely we will remove every food with a possible choke factor from our childrens' diets.

What we can do is get out of the habit of eating on the run. Tossing chicken fingers and fries to your kids in the backseat of the car while you drive with one hand on the wheel and the other hand on the hamburger you’re eating doesn’t cut it. We need to use our dining rooms, kitchen tables or breakfast bars and sit down with our kids to eat at a relaxed pace. This will allow us to monitor our children closely while they are eating and the family is bonding.

Finally, find out what to do in case one of your kids or anyone else is choking on food. Contact your local Red Cross or go to redcross.org.

Denny Banister, of Jefferson City, is the assistant director of public affairs for the Missouri Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization.


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