My older son nearly died this week, all from an unlabeled peanut butter cookie. 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 cookie from his school cafeteria sent him into critical anaphylactic shock and required him to be helicoptered 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 kids and the parents of the kids who were not so lucky.

As someone whose children have been allergic to peanuts 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 foods from pasta sauce to egg rolls.

Just some quick research on legal issues around peanut allergies finds that lawyers and policy makers could play a substantial role in preventing what happened to my son.

  • Most shocking to me is that there is a drug, TNX-901, that could protect those with peanut allergies from precisely the type of exposure my son suffered. But lawyers and legal wrangling are keeping that drug from the public. See these articles in The New York Times and Business Week.
  • It appears that 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. This is more complex than the simple question of whether to make schools peanut free. 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 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.

Lawyers have a critical role to play here. They can help bring about laws, regulations and policies to protect the lives of children with food allergies. We can require 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 this week.

Photo of Bob Ambrogi Bob Ambrogi

Bob is a lawyer, veteran legal journalist, and award-winning blogger and podcaster. In 2011, he was named to the inaugural Fastcase 50, honoring “the law’s smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries and leaders.” Earlier in his career, he was editor-in-chief of several legal publications, including The National Law Journal, and editorial director of ALM’s Litigation Services Division.