America’s choke hold on Kinder Surprise


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WASHINGTON -- At the far end of a strip mall in the Washington suburbs is a mom-and-pop grocery that we'll call Old Country Foods. There is a meat locker full of sausages from Germany and Russia, a rack of breads from Lithuania and Ukraine, and a gut-busting plenitude of jarred pickles, smoked fish, tinned roe, boxed sweets and bottled beer.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/01/2011 (4215 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

WASHINGTON — At the far end of a strip mall in the Washington suburbs is a mom-and-pop grocery that we’ll call Old Country Foods. There is a meat locker full of sausages from Germany and Russia, a rack of breads from Lithuania and Ukraine, and a gut-busting plenitude of jarred pickles, smoked fish, tinned roe, boxed sweets and bottled beer.

On the front counter, next to the lollipops from Poland, is a display of foil-wrapped candies from one of the world’s largest and most prestigious confectioners, the Ferrero Group of Italy. It’s a newly arrived clutch of Kinder Surprise milk-chocolate eggs, each one with a tiny toy or puzzle or doll hidden at its core, inside a little yellow plastic cask.

“Since 1974, Kinder Surprise has delighted millions of children with a revolutionary idea,” crows the manufacturer. “By combining a chocolate egg, a surprise, and a toy, a fun and entertaining world for children was created, while at the same time, delivering parents a reassuring and emotional experience. Since its launch, nearly 30 billion eggs have been sold all over the world with more than 8,000 different surprises!”

Imagine our Washington shopkeeper’s reaction, then, when I inform her that it is illegal to sell these candies in the United States, illegal to possess them, and — as a Winnipeg woman learned in December in a widely reported story that many Canadians took as a farce — illegal to bring even a single egg across the American border, an offence that is punishable by a substantial fine.

“How do you get them?” I ask the merchant.

“From our distributor who brings us other Russian candies,” she replies.

I pick up an egg and point out the labelling, which is in French and English and which names a company in North York, Ont., as Ferrero’s official agent.

“These aren’t from Russia,” I notify the merchant. “Somebody brought these across the Canadian border. Have the police ever asked you about them?”

“No,” she replies, motioning to a rack of sweet wines from the Republic of Georgia. “Only to see the licence for the alcohol.”

In the crush of cross-border commerce, in a menacing and malevolent age, conflicting national policies on Kinder eggs are a minor, though persistent, distraction. Every Christmas, says Scott Wolfson at the Consumer Product Safety Commission — which is headquartered just a few blocks from Old County Foods — someone brings up the issue, usually after a well-publicized seizure at the Peace Bridge or the Peace Arch or the Peace Garden by the U. S. Department of Ovoid Security.

“In Europe and in Canada, they are beloved,” Wolfson tells me. “But we care about the safety of our children. For more than 35 years, we have been working through regulation and education that there is a choking hazard from what we deem to be small parts and yes, we do share the expertise of this agency with Customs and Border Protection, and yes, we do look out for Kinder eggs.”

The bureaucrat directs me to the pertinent section of the Code of Federal Regulations, which includes an illustration of a cylinder that is precisely 57.1 millimetres tall and 31.7 millimetres wide and which stipulates: “Sec. 1501.4 Size requirements and test procedure.

“If the article does not fit entirely within the cylinder, subject it to the appropriate “use and abuse” tests of 16 CFR 1500.51 and 1500.52 (excluding the bite tests of Sec.1500.51(c) and 1500.52(c)). “Any components or pieces (excluding paper, fabric, yarn, fuzz, elastic, and string) which have become detached from the article as a result of the use and abuse testing shall be placed into the cylinder, one at a time. If any such components or pieces fit entirely within the cylinder, in any orientation and without being compressed, the article fails to comply with the test procedure.”

At home, I enlist my five-year-old daughter’s assistance in the inspection of one of the contraband treats. It’s hardly Lizzie’s first experience with Kinder Surprise; they are universally available in Russia, her mother’s mother country, and our house already is strewn with microscopic action figures, plastic animals, and racing cars that once nestled inside the eggs.

When we peel off the foil and split the chocolate and crack open the little yellow sputnik, we find a label that says “Warning, read and keep: Toy not suitable for children under three years. Small parts might be swallowed or inhaled.” The warning has been translated into Azerbaijani, Bulgarian, Bosnian, Czech, Danish, German, Greek, English, Spanish, Estonian, Finnish, French, Hungarian, Armenian, Italian, Kazakh, Georgian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Dutch, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Slovenian, Albanian, Serbo-Croatian, Swedish, Turkish, Ukrainian, Arabic, and Standard and Simplified Chinese.

We also find an eight-piece Looney Tunes jigsaw puzzle featuring Bugs Bunny, an American icon now banned, in this form at least, from the United States.

The warning label is clear, but the issue, to the American government and certain other parties, is that children under three can’t read.

On the telephone from Britain, now, is a woman named Glenys Ashton who manages a charity shop called Sense in the city of Birmingham. Twenty-one years ago last November, on Guy Fawkes Night — “everything was going boom-boom outside” — Mrs. Ashton’s three-year-old daughter Jennifer choked to death on a part of a Pink Panther figurine from a Kinder Surprise chocolate egg.

So there was a tragic side to the “reassuring and emotional experience” as well.

The Ashton family campaigned to have the candies banned in Britain, testified before a committee of Parliament, and argued that the warning label was, to say the least, insufficient because, as Glenys tells me, “every child we know of who died has been thirty-six months or over.”

This was true; a boy named Roddy Breslin from Northern Ireland already was three when he choked on the wheel and axle of a tiny truck.

After Jeni died, Ferrero agreed to raise the age on the warning label to five, at least in the United Kingdom. But this has reverted back to three on the packages that Glenys Ashton recently has seen.

“They went back on their word,” Ashton says. “We’ve stopped now. We never really were able to get anything done.”

In 2009, Forbes ranked Ferrero as the world’s most reputable company.

“All Kinder Surprise toys are designed and developed with safety in mind, rigorously observing international regulations as well as extra safety criteria voluntarily adopted by the Ferrero Group,” the company’s publicity insists.

“The capsules, they’re so solid and they smell like chocolate,” Glenys Ashton says. “Kids naturally put them in their mouths. The company said that they had sold billions of these eggs and that there had only been three deaths. But one death is enough, isn’t it?”


Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.


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