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'Troublesome Product' Can Burn Worse Than Hot Coffee

There is “a uniquely troublesome product” that Dr. Warren Garner, director of the burn unit at University of Southern California’s County Hospital in Los Angeles, says he does not have in his house and encourages everyone he know not to have. The product is instant cups of soup, and in a National Public Radio story on December 5, 2011, Garner said his unit sees at least two or three patients a week who have been injured by these products. Furthermore, he told NPR that “the most common cases are small children, often toddlers, accidentally tipping the cup over onto themselves.” About one in five children he sees end up needing surgery.

Cup Noodles by Nissin was invented 50 years ago and has sold more than 25 billion worldwide, but NPR said “cup of noodles” is used as shorthand for of the entire variety of different brands of instant soups in cups. Because noodles conduct heat and stay hotter longer, they can cling to skin and lead to deeper, more severe burns.

The element that makes the soups so dangerous is the way the product is designed, with many cups being tall, lightweight and having an unstable base. The containers tip over easily and Garner told NPR that there is “no other injury that he sees as regularly that can be so directly attributed to a product’s design.”

Dr. David Greenhalgh, Chief of Burns at Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Northern California, and the author of a study entitled “Instant Cup of Soup: Design Flaws Increase Risk of Burns,” told NPR that the problem “might have an elegant and potentially low-cost solution”: Just invert the design of the cup. Greenhalgh’s study showed that tall cups with a narrow bottom tip over about three times more easily than short, squat containers with a wide, stable base.

NPR reporter Mara Zepeda said she tried to reach out to Nissin and manufacturers of “some of the other tippiest cups” in Greenhalgh’s study “to know if they’d been sued, how much they’d settled for, and how much it would cost to redesign the cup,” but every company declined to comment or failed to get back to her.

It is truly disturbing that so many companies would continue to manufacture products that have caused scores of burn injuries—especially among children. The NPR story recalls the documentary “Hot Coffee” that we mentioned in a previous blog post about serious burns. In that film, one of the very telling moments was the McDonald’s quality control manager saying that the more than 700 burn complaints prior to the lawsuit filed by Stella Liebeck did not warrant the company changing its policy to serve coffee between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit.

Will companies like Cup Noodles one day be facing a similarly high-profile case?

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