Food Allergy Backlash

in Help & Advice
Published: July 2, 2010

Ten years ago my foray into the world of food allergies began when my first born, Julian, was diagnosed with peanut allergy just months before starting junior kindergarten. Looking back, I’m amazed to see how far we’ve come as a society to address an issue affecting a growing number of children.

In January 2006, Sabrina’s Law was passed, requiring that all publicly funded school boards in Ontario have measures in place to protect children at risk of anaphylaxis. The concept of Sabrina’s Law has since spread: Ontario has passed legislation to safeguard children in child-care centres; in British Columbia, a ministerial order to protect students with severe allergies was signed last fall; and similar school measures have been adopted in several U.S. states.

We’ve made great strides on awareness and support. Yet as heartening as that is, I find myself increasingly concerned about an undercurrent of negative commentary. There have long been grumblers, but the chorus seems to be getting louder: from ignorant bloggers ridiculing food allergic people to radio talk show hosts ranting about the demands of “over-protective” parents.

Most alarming is an article that appeared in the January issue of Harper’s magazine called “Everyone’s Gone Nuts: the Exaggerated Threat of Food Allergies,” by a writer named Meredith Broussard. With sneering tone, Broussard, who has no medical background, ignored key findings to suggest that the “rash of fatal food allergies is mostly myth” fueled by anxious parents, questionable prevalence data, and sensationalist news coverage.

offered Broussard a credible venue in which to be contrarian, and she came out swinging. She used statistics from the Centers for Disease Control to underscore her claim that “a cultural hysteria” prevails around food allergy. After all, she noted, not that many people die of reactions. Her comments fueled public debate, sparking commentary from allergy experts and enraging parents of food allergic children. But on her side were strident bloggers, who heartily supported her views.

What disbelievers like Broussard fail to appreciate is the uncertainty that a diagnosis of food allergy brings for families. What we know for certain is that a very small amount of an allergenic food when eaten can cause a severe allergic reaction and that people have died from food-induced anaphylaxis. While certain factors increase or decrease the likelihood, nobody can tell us for certain who is at risk of a fatal reaction. Many parents have wound up in an emergency department, panic-stricken, with their children in the throes of an allergic reaction, wondering whether they would survive.

Around the same time that the Harper’s article appeared, I was asked by a journalist whether I thought there was “food allergy fatigue” with the cancellation of some food-centred school activities such as birthday treats and bake sales. Her question started me wondering: Could we, as parents of food-allergic children, be inadvertently contributing to this growing backlash or allergy fatigue with our own behaviour?

It can be difficult to get people to take food allergy seriously when our kids don’t look sick (unless they’re having a reaction), and the fatality rate is not that high compared to other conditions. Many parents resort to scare tactics to get the point across, such as the oft-used comment – “a peanut butter sandwich is like a loaded gun to my child.” This approach lessens the credibility of the parent, who seems driven more by emotion than by fact. It can also isolate food-allergic children, who get left out of social events as other parents feel they cannot adequately care for them.

At times our expectations can be unrealistic. Like many parents, I have asked others to guarantee my son’s safety at school, camp, or when dining out. I did this out of a fierce love for my child. What I learned through my own mistakes, however, is that even I could not guarantee Julian would never have a reaction, even in our own home. On two occasions I had to administer his auto-injector after he ate foods containing allergens which I had missed on ingredient labels.

While I certainly don’t have all of the answers, I believe that as a society, allergic and non-allergic people must try to understand each other’s perspectives and work together. We have a growing public health issue with food allergy on the rise. As anaphylaxis policies continue to take shape in our schools, workplaces, and other sectors, inevitably we will all be affected in some way. We need to collaborate on strategies that protect individuals at risk, but at the same time are reasonable for the wider, non-allergic community. As parents of food-allergic children, we need to watch that our expectations are fair, and that our behaviour empowers our children.

While I realize there will always be diehard skeptics who play down the risk of food allergy, I take heart in the thought that fatalities from reactions may be low because food-allergic individuals are taking responsibility to protect themselves – and because the majority of people are doing their part to safeguard them.

Laurie Harada is the former executive director of Food Allergy Canada,