The Elusive Line on Food Allergens

Posted on May 24, 2010

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I may be attempting the impossible here, but I’d like to talk about peanut allergies among school children without stirring up a swarm of angry responses. I’m not questioning the existence or seriousness of these allergies. But after doing a considerable amount of research, it’s clear to me that peanut products pose a mortal danger to a tiny fraction of the population. The United States has about 75 million students in elementary and secondary schools. The total number of deaths caused by food allergies per year in the United States averages around one hundred — and that’s for all ages and all foods.

There’s no question that for every person who dies from allergies, there are many more who have allergies severe enough to be life-threatening. As a result, numerous schools and workplaces have implemented voluntary or mandatory banning of products that may contain even trace amounts of peanuts. But there are also people who are allergic to milk, fish, and meat. Others can’t consume strawberries, apples, or bananas. In fact, choose any food you can think of, and I bet there’s somebody in the world who’s allergic to it. But peanut allergies are the most dangerous. Well, if we’re going to establish rules based on the relatively small number of children who could potentially get very sick or even die from peanuts, shouldn’t we give the same consideration to anyone with any allergy? How do you know that a reaction to strawberries won’t be fatal for any given person? Many people are allergic to dairy products; isn’t it possible that one or two may be dangerously so? What about tuna? Or ham? Or cheese? Should we ban all of these foods? We may get to the point where we can’t allow students to eat anything in school. But even that wouldn’t solve every possible threat. What would happen if there were a couple of students who were deathly allergic to chalk? Or pencils? Or loose-leaf paper?

Just to take it one step closer to the ridiculous, think about pet allergies. I know people who can’t step into a house where a dog or cat is living. Their reaction is immediate: swelling, wheezing, throat closing, eyes watering. This reaction can be dangerous, and even fatal. Pet hair tends to spread throughout the house. It can be on furniture, in the carpeting, and floating in the air. Some of this fur lands on clothing. Some of this clothing is worn by children, who then go off to school and rub up against other children who may be allergic. What would happen if, at some school, there were two or three students who were deathly allergic to pet hair? Would there be an announcement that all students must get rid of their dog or cat? What would be the response to such a demand? It sounds ludicrous, but it’s possible. Thirty years ago, prohibiting peanut butter in schools would have sounded just as ludicrous.

A few more statistics, just for some perspective. About two thousand children drown every year in the United States. That’s two thousand. As far as I know, no one has suggested a ban on swimming and bathing. Between thirty and fifty people die while skiing each year in the US, but ski trips are still commonplace in schools. Between 1982 and 2005, ninety-eight high school football players died from injuries sustained during a practice or game. I’ve never heard anyone imply we should get rid of football.

So we do have some vague sense of limits. We can at least rattle off a few things we aren’t willing to give up. But I have a feeling that until somebody really thinks this through, the list of restrictions will continue to grow. And we may find ourselves so entangled in regulations designed to protect the individual, groups will no longer be able to function.

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