An expert who investigated a choking case in Rotorua has hit back at criticism of new food safety rules for early childhood centres aimed at preventing similar episodes.
A ban on certain foods starts on Monday after lobbying from the Rotorua family of a boy left severely brain-damaged following a choking incident.
Two local centres have backed the changes but nationally, there has been criticism that the Ministry of Education has taken the new rules too far.
Food such as sausages, hard rice crackers, dried fruit, popcorn, nuts, large seeds, hard or chewy lollies, crisps, hard rice crackers, dried fruit, sausages/saveloys and marshmallows can no longer be served.
Small, hard food such as apple or carrot has to be grated if raw or cooked until soft and cut into strips.
Other rules include removing stones, seeds or skin from some foods and chopping or shredding others. Peas, for example, must be cooked and squashed with a fork for under-3s but older children can have them whole.
Services that do not provide food must promote the new guidance to parents, but it is not compulsory for parents to stick to the rules.
The rules were previously Ministry of Health guidelines but the Ministry of Education has made them mandatory after the family of Neihana Renata pushed for changes.
Neihana was 22 months old when he choked on apple at his Rotorua daycare in 2016.
The changes have been criticised by Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds, who was reported as saying the rules should remain guidelines.
"These people are trained teachers. They know how to supervise children and supervise their eating habits," Reynolds told Newstalk ZB.
"We have every sympathy for the incident that happened a couple of years ago now, for the family whose child choked on some food and as a result suffered a brain injury. That's not what we want to see happen but this is an over-reaction. It's wrapping kids in cotton wool and is unnecessary."
Some parents have been reported as saying the new guidelines make it difficult for parents who were already time-poor and financially strapped.
Childforum chief executive Dr Sarah Alexander, who supported the Renata family in their campaign, compared the rules to other child safety laws.
"Should buckling children into their car seats when travelling, or adults smoking around children in the service be optional? The Early Childhood Council can rant all it wants but fortunately, the Ministry of Education has not listened to it."
Alexander said the changes were not just a reaction to one choking case.
She said many teachers and parents had since come forward and told her about choking incidents that could have been avoided had the guidelines been followed.
"Choking incidents are a lot more common than is reported."
Regarding food prepared by parents, she said: "Sometimes saving lives involves spending an extra 30 seconds preparing your child's lunch each day."
She said a 3-year-old at home might have been introduced to eating slices of raw apple but in an early childhood centre, there weren't usually enough adults to give one-to-one attention to each child.
She said a child could pick up dropped food they were not used to and choke on it.
"Children are precious. They only have one life. We can't afford to be casual about child safety, our own children or other people's children."
Eric Hollis, curriculum leader of The Ole Schoolhouse Early Childhood Centre in Rotorua, said it won't be a big change for them as they already followed the guidelines.
He was confused about the criticism, saying centres had a role to protect children and experts had said certain foods were risky. He said any sensible facility would already be following the guidelines.
"It's not advisable to fly in the face of science ... It's a perfectly reasonable risk-management strategy."
He said choking incidents were incredibly traumatic for staff and children witnessing them and all steps should be taken to minimise them.
"These rules are common-sense and sensible and are not going too far. These children are in our care and we are professionals paid to look after their safety.
"We also have a role in supporting parents, particularly new parents, of the risks there are around choking."
Responding to the comments from Alexander and Hollis, Reynolds said the council's focus was to get food rules right and make them practical.
"The Ministry of Health's guidelines on food safety and choking, while highlighting the issue and the importance of noting and responding to the risk, do not provide a comprehensive picture of what might cause a child to choke and are no substitute for appropriate first aid training on responding to a choking incident."
He said the guidelines should remain as guidelines so centres had discretion in approaching this issue – but approach it they must.
He said wanted to see the ministry engage with services on the regulations and first aid training.
"Our concern is that taking a limited set of foods and creating rules from what were intended to be guidelines will create confusion among services and parents unnecessarily. There are better ways to address this."
Rotorua Homebased Childcare owner Katrina Van Der Gulik said all their parents provided food for their children and had been given the guidelines.
"At the end of the day, they can put what they want in their child's lunchbox. For us the important focus will be on supervision of children while they are eating, so making sure children are sitting while eating and educators are sitting with them and closely supervising them. Educators can also send food home again."
Ministry of Education deputy secretary sector enablement and support, Katrina Casey, said in December that the amendments were designed to keep young children safe by minimising the risk of choking.
Marama Renata declined to comment to the Rotorua Daily Post but said last year they were "absolutely thrilled with the news" of the rule changes.