Victims of severe peanut allergies—as well as those who adjust their lives to protect them—recently received some good news. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that exposing infants to peanuts could reduce the chances of developing a severe peanut allergy by 70 to 80 percent. That’s huge. The general response from the medical community, judging from phrases such as “landmark” and “paradigm shifting,” has been wildly enthusiastic.
Peanut allergen hypersensitivity has a mysterious etiology. It initially generated sustained media attention in the late 1980s. Between 1997 and 2002, allergy rates in children doubled. By 2008 they had tripled. To reiterate the severity of the situation, Jane Brody reported for the New York Times on kids dropping dead from anaphylactic episodes induced by peanut-laden coffee cake and sandwiches made with knives that had touched peanut butter. Parents of allergic kids were terrified. Experts were confused. They still are.
Medical conundrums tend to bring out the best and the worst in people. On the down side, fear-mongers took advantage of these inexplicable but escalating incidents to agitate a hornet’s nest of pseudo-scientific anxiety. Some blamed pesticides. Others condemned genetically modified organisms. Yet others have used peanut allergies as a pretext to promote organic foods. Despite the fact that the scientific community has repeatedly noted that the cause of peanut allergies “is poorly understood,” a cynical populism has, to an alarming extent, prevailed.
We’ve seen it over and over: Consumers don’t want to be told what to do by strangers in power. And strangers in power, over and over, just don’t get it.
But on the upside, the rise in peanut allergies has inspired something rarely seen in the contentious world of food choice: cooperation.
As anaphylactic deaths made the news, pressure came down on public venues—primarily schools—to accommodate students endangered not only by eating peanuts, but also by merely being around them. Peanuts and peanut-based products—the PB&J!—were increasingly restricted or banned from the classroom.
Whether or not an outright ban is a good idea (and there’s been plenty of debate on that question), parents of non-allergenic children have proven to be not only deeply supportive of allergenic children, but also committed in expecting their own children to carry the burden of sacrifice.
There are numbers to buttress this claim. A National Poll on Children’s Health, undertaken by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in 2014, found that 61 percent of all parents surveyed supported a ban on nuts and nut-items in lunches and snacks for classes that had an allergenic child (the support was equal among parents of allergenic and non-allergenic children); nearly 40 percent supported a complete ban for the entire school when an allergenic child was in attendance; and 43 percent were even in favor banning peanuts at school-related special events.
As the poll’s author explained: “The take-home message is that there is strong support among parents for strategies that keep nut-allergenic children safe while still allowing them to interact with their classmates.”
To anyone who follows food discourse, this is remarkable. Consumers—Americans in particular—typically recoil in the face of food restrictions. Think of the soda tax, which most Americans oppose, and have vocally denigrated as inconsistent with free choice; or school lunches, which have turned cafeterias into political battlegrounds. While it’s true that proposed peanut bans have occasionally sparked a backlash, the flak was more of an exception that proved the rule: Most of us are basically OK with peanut restrictions.
So: What makes peanuts different? Why do American consumers appear to be more accepting of one kind of restriction (on peanuts) than on others?
The answer has a lot to do with the way the message is delivered. In the case of peanut allergies, it’s often parents appealing directly to other parents on a hyper-local level about their child’s condition. The justification for the restriction comes with a personal and emotional appeal. It’s dramatically clear what’s at stake in the request. The request usually comes in a spirit of humility. Perhaps most critically, those being asked to make the sacrifice are placed in the position of being a model citizen and doing a good deed by saying “Yes.”
Consider the appeal made by Blanca Lesmes and Ben Buentipo on behalf of their son, who attends a Montessori school in Austin, Texas:
Our son ... will be a student in your child’s classroom this year. We are asking your help in keeping him safe in his new school environment. [He] is highly allergic to peanuts. Unfortunately his allergy is not only upon the ingestion of peanuts but also via indirect exposure. His last major incident occurred after his dad had eaten a peanut butter sandwich for breakfast and gave [him] a kiss on the forehead. Moments later his eye began to swell shut and his body broke out into hives.
As you can imagine, we are vigilant in his contact with peanuts. Airborne dust on a plane ride a few years ago was the culprit on another occasion. Unfortunately, it is very challenging to ensure that children not touch each other after lunch. Or even that a child’s hands have been properly washed before hanging from monkey bars that [he] would later hang from.
Perhaps the most dangerous consequence of ingesting peanuts would be anaphylactic shock and death. The school is equipped with an Epi Pen (which contains epinephrine to stop the effects of the exposure) in the event he consumes a peanut accidentally.
In light of this, I would ask your support in making his classroom peanut free. He is very conscientious to only eat food from his lunchbox or that an adult can adequately verify is peanut-free. Obviously we hope that one day he will be able to enjoy all the delicious goodness that is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, but until then we hope you continue to enjoy them in your homes. Thank you in advance for your help.
Lesmes described the parental response to this letter as “extraordinary.” Families not only honored the ban but some of them even excluded peanuts from their own homes as an extra precaution. This almost excessively supportive response is consistent with the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital’s finding that parents of non-allergenic kids were even more likely to favor a ban than parents of allergenic kids, many of whom—including Lesmes—fully understand that the request might rankle some families. The fact is, though, when given the chance to help others in a big way with a small sacrifice—one that’s presented to them as a choice—most consumers are eager to cooperate.
If only we could take this lesson and apply it to larger top-down attempts to regulate the foods we eat. To wit, the most recent high-profiled attempt to restrict or shape food choices—the proposal of a National Food Policy—involved four men (three professors and a food writer) proposing that the president evade Congress and "announce an executive order establishing a national policy for food, health and well-being."
The goals of the policy—eating healthier real foods, protecting those who grow our food, reducing food’s carbon footprint, etc.—are worthy ones. But the delivery couldn’t be more opposite than Lesmes’ appeal to her son’s class. We’ve seen it over and over: Consumers don’t want to be told what to do by strangers in power. And strangers in power, over and over, just don’t get it.
When it comes to food, consumers want agency and the justification to do the right thing. Maybe the big legacy of the peanut allergy will be to show us how this can be done.
The Things We Eat is a regular Pacific Standard column from James McWilliams on food, agriculture, and the American diet.