Gerber Products Co. has decided to modify labeling for its toddler meat sticks and chicken sticks to make clear that the sausage-like products are for only those children with enough teeth to chew them adequately.

The change comes, in part, because of the persistence of a Falls Church mother, Carole Harris, whose son, then 14 months old, nearly choked to death in December when a piece of a cylindrical meat stick lodged in his throat. The child was unconscious for about one minute, until Harris was able to revive him.

Harris called Gerber, government agencies and the media. Two other mothers in the area who saw the resulting publicity said their children also had choked on the product in the past month.

Harris discovered a Johns Hopkins University study that found that six of 12 childhood choking deaths reported to the Maryland coroner's office in an eight-year period were due to "hot dogs." The Gerber products were not involved.

A Food and Drug Administration health hazard evaluation board recommended to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that for toddlers without teeth, the Gerber meat stick could be dangerous: the shape was capable of fully obstructing a child's airway passage, and the product's tough outer covering required teeth to break it apart. The panel also said an advertisement on the product label, promoting Gerber toddler meals for 1- to 4-year-olds, could lead parents to believe that the meat sticks were also intended for the same age group. The meat sticks are promoted by Gerber as a finger food for toddlers, "an ill-defined group," the board said.

Harris asked USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service to require a warning statement on the label that the product is not intended for children under 3 years of age. She also urged a recall of existing stock. While Gerber has agreed to change the label, there will be no recall, says FSIS spokesman John McClung, because the agency does not consider the product to pose "an imminent and immediate health hazard." He noted that the product had been on the market for 22 years without an incident of which the agency is aware.

However, the FDA panel said it "does not feel that modified serving instructions per se would eliminate the problem." The "fundamental issue," the panel continued, "is whether or not the foods are adequately chewed." The panel suggested that the product shape could be modified to reduce airway obstruction potential.

John Whitlock, public relations director at Gerber, says the company has no plans to make changes in the product, saying that the product is safe when used as intended, although many parents, including Harris, assume it's safer to serve it cut up. "It's just not been a problem," Whitlock says. Pointing to the FDA panel's conclusion that there is no substitute for parental education, Whitlock says, "Parental supervision is what's important." The advertisement on the meat stick label promoting toddler meals will come off the new labels to provide room for the precautionary statement, according to Whitlock.

Harris believes the products on the shelves without warning labels pose a risk. But she says she is pleased with the responsiveness of the government and says USDA officials are continuing to keep in touch with her during discussions for the exact wording on the new label. "You go for the best you can get," she says, "and hope that will preclude any deaths."