As the parent of two kids with nut and other food allergies, I live in constant fear of hidden allergens in food. (I wrote in 2006 about my older son’s near-death experience from an unmarked peanut-butter cookie.) Here is good news for parents who find themselves in this situation: Food-sniffing dogs trained to protect children [...]
TAG | food allergies
Another follow-up to my post earlier this week, Food Allergies and the Law. A lawyer in Wisconsin sent me a thoughtful note detailing his own experiences with peanut allergies and his thoughts on prevention. I asked if I could share it here and he agreed, but he requested that I not identify him by name. If anyone wishes to contact him directly, he said, they may do so through me. Here is his note:
“I have suffered from allergies to peanuts and other nuts since I was about 4 yrs old. I am 61 now. When I was a child, few people were aware of nut allergies and the reactions they cause. There was little labeling of foods. In elementary school, school lunches were so dangerous that after a few reactions I simply brown bagged it. Lunches or dinners at friends houses were also very dangerous. Adults did not realize that not serving me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches like my friends were having avoided the problem. They would frequently use the peanut butter knife to spread butter on my summer sausage sandwich. I was embarrassed to explain that I still could not eat the sandwich because of the contamination from the knife. Fortunately as a youngster, my reactions were not truly anaphylactic (they have gotten worse over the years), although there was some difficulty breathing. In a few hours, I was feeling better. But I was pretty much on my own to protect myself.
“My objective in writing you is to stress the importance of self defense for those with food allergies. The reality is that you simply can not eat food unless you are absolutely sure the ingredients are free of your allergy triggers. Labeling has been a great benefit to me. But I still simply avoid the unknown. I now work in an office where most fellow employees know of my allergies. But on birthdays, food containing nuts is regularly brought to share. I don’t eat any of it unless I have personally spoken with the baker to determine the ingredients. I will eat the food only if I trust the baker. For example, I once asked a fellow employee if her cookies contained peanuts or other nuts. She said no. After one bite and an immediate reaction, I reasked her. She then told me there were peanut butter chips in the cookies, Duhhhh! She didn’t know peanut butter was a problem, and anyway, they were just chips! I have not eaten a cookie since without following my rule stated above. I have been aware for years that egg rolls, certain pastas and chili often contain peanuts or peanut butter. I avoid them unless I know the cook and confirm the absence of nuts.
“Labeling is not a cure-all. I spent a night in the hospital after eating ‘plain’ carmel corn. The ingredients listed on the bag made no mention of peanuts. The factory apparently misbagged the corn, placing carmel corn with peanuts in the plain bags. I looked in the bag after eating it and before heading to the hospital and I could clearly see the nuts throughout. Should I have looked first, since I was well aware carmel corn often contains peanuts? Maybe. So now I am careful to look at what I am eating notwithstanding the labeling. Notwithstanding this, labeling has made my life much easier and I would support continued rules on accurate and complete food labeling where it is practical. I would also support the abolition of any rules prohibiting allergic children from carrying and administering epi pens to themselves. I have used an epi pen no less than 10 times, probably more, and always have two available, one at home and one in my briefcase. I also save the expired pens for about 6-8 months as backups, as they are surely effective that long. I am also pleased to see the growing number of websites where parents and allergic children can learn about their allergies and how to cope.
“I am not willing to go so far as to back a call for new legislation of other types. Bans of nuts from schools, separate eating areas I think go too far. I have a distaste for placing a burden on society to protect me in this regard. If a child is eating next to another child whose food is a problem, the allergic child needs to know, instructed by his/her parents, to move. Children with food allergies need to know they simply cannot grab a cookie off of a plate and eat it. My guess is your son knows that now. I sympathize with both of you as I know a reaction is just a horrible experience. So please share this email with him. My experiences may alert him to risks he is unaware of.
“Thanks for your article. I’m sure it opened a few eyes to the problem. Take care and my best to your son.”
My post Tuesday, Food Allergies and the Law, inspired May contain traces of nuts …, a post by the anonymous Australian lawyer who writes the blog The Legal Soapbox, describing her own life-threatening allergy to nuts. She rants (her word, not mine) about the vagueness and inconsistency of food-labeling laws and calls for uniformity in food labels. She also talks about her problems with restaurants, ones any food-allergy sufferer can relate to:
“I usually say: ‘I’m allergic to nuts. Let’s be clear about this. I may die if I eat nuts and I don’t inject myself with adrenalin in time. I can have a reaction even if nuts have merely touched something I eat, or if kitchen utensils which have come into contact with nuts have then come into contact with my food.’ That usually sharpens up the attention of waiters.”
I recommend you read her full post.
[Note: The following column originally appeared elsewhere in print. Response was so strong that I decided to republish it here. -RJA]
One recent day, an unlabeled peanut-butter cookie nearly killed my teenaged son. We’ve known of his peanut allergy since he was an infant and thought we had it pretty well in hand. But one taste of an unmarked treat from his school cafeteria sent him into critical anaphylactic shock and required him to be taken by helicopter to a critical care unit in Boston.
Thankfully he survived. But I can’t help but worry about the risk both my sons face for the rest of their lives. Nor can I help but think of the children – and the parents of the children – who may not be so lucky.
As someone whose children have been allergic to nuts their entire lives, I should be better informed about this than I am. And as a lawyer, I should better understand legal and legislative efforts to protect those with peanut and other food allergies. Scariest about peanuts is how invisibly pervasive they are, used as additives and thickening agents in a host of unlikely foods, from pasta sauce to egg rolls.
As a lawyer, this crisis got me to thinking: What can lawyers and policy makers do to help protect others from what happened to my son? Towards finding that answer, I devote this column to exploring online resources relating to peanut allergies and the law.
Given the ubiquity of the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich among children, a logical place to start in safeguarding those with peanut allergies is our grade schools. Policymakers in a handful of states have set guidelines – voluntary for the most part – on how schools should deal with life-threatening food allergies, but they’ve fallen short of regulating this in any meaningful way.
On a public-policy level, the questions are more complex than simply whether to make schools peanut free. That question, alone, is controversial, but there are others that are equally debatable. Should we require schools to label foods in their cafeterias? To provide peanut-free tables or areas? To allow students to carry and self-administer epinephrine pens?
The importance of this as a legal and public-policy issue will continue to grow. A 2003 report from The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network found that the number of children with peanut allergies had doubled over the preceding five years and that 79 percent of children with the allergy had experienced severe reactions.
FAAN’s Web site is an excellent resource for general information on food allergies. A section of the site is devoted to legal advocacy. It contains information on federal and state legislative and regulatory initiatives related to food allergies. Specific topics include food labeling, schools and camps, emergency medical services, restaurants and airlines.
A good resource for information on federal laws and policies relating to food allergies is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition. The site has extensive information about the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, which the FDA oversees. It includes the full text of the act as well as numerous documents related to compliance and exemptions. It also has a collection of links to food allergy resources elsewhere in the federal government, primarily relating to health and nutritional issues.
Other sites with information on law and policy related to food allergies include:
- AllergicChild.com. A support group for parents, teachers and others who deal with allergic children, its site includes a page devoted to food allergy legislations. The information is fairly minimal and it appears that there have been no updates since 2005.
- Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. The AAFA is an asthma and allergy patient advocacy group whose mission is to help improve the lives of people with asthma and allergies through education, advocacy and research. Its Web site includes sections on various food allergies as well as sections on legal protections for allergy sufferers under the Americans with Disabilities Act and food labeling laws.
- Food Allergy Initiative. A public policy section has information on federal labeling laws, current legislation, and 504 plans for schools to accommodate students with food allergies.
- The Food Allergy Project. This is a coalition of parents, researchers, educators and others aimed at increasing federal and private funding for food allergy research. In its news section, the site has some information on legislative initiatives related to its work.
- Kids with Food Allergies.com. This nonprofit organization is dedicated to improving the lives of children with food allergies by sharing resources and tips. Access to most of the site’s resources requires payment of an annual $25 membership fee. These resources deal mostly with non-legal issues, but also include information on the federal food labeling laws.
- PeanutAllergy.com. Although this site has pages for “issues of concern” such as food labeling and schools, they are virtually empty. However, the site has a number of active discussion boards. Of interest to legal professionals, these boards contain numerous stories of legal challenges faced by those with peanut allergies in seeking accommodations in their schools and elsewhere. A number of postings relate directly to negotiating and drafting 504 agreements with schools.
- Peanut Aware. The site is intended to serve as a resource for information on allergy books, allergy-safe foods and restaurants, and more. It has no direct information on legal or public-policy matters, although its discussion forum has a section with some postings on 504 plans and other school issues.
Lawyers have a critical role to play here. We can help bring about laws, regulations and policies to protect the lives of children with food allergies. We can lobby for clearer labeling. We can support – rather than block – scientific research. We can push for accountability and education.
We can’t cure these allergies, but we can help prevent needless, life-threatening situations such as the one that almost killed my son.