Peanut Allergies: Failing to Assess Risks, but Kids are Scared

Two years in a row now, trips to Oregon over Christmas have produced encounters with a strange fear of peanuts, the fear of lawsuits, or a mixture of both.

As passengers were boarding a red-eye flight at Portland International two years ago, a flight attendant repeatedly announced, “This is a ‘no peanut flight.’ A child flying this evening is allergic to peanuts, and there will be no peanuts or peanut products allowed on this flight.”

Then this year, stopping for a bite at a Dairy Queen in Creswell, one is taken aback by the large sign on the door: “Allergens including peanuts and other nuts are used in this location and may come in contact with your product.” Even my cup of coffee?

A few days later, a 7 a.m. customer in one of the concourse Starbucks at PDX asked for oatmeal for his young son, double-checking on the toppings available: “Fruit, right? This doesn’t have any nuts? It’s just fruit. There’s no peanuts?” The counterman assured him, “No, no peanuts. But the fruit topping is produced in the same facility that produces the nut toppings, if that’s a concern.”

We thought perhaps we spotted these mini-peanut scares just because we’re attuned to examples of Americans’ inability to accurately assess risk, an ailment promoted by class-action lawyers, their “consumer” activist allies, and fear-mongering media.

But last week Los Angeles Times columnist Joel Stein took on the same phemenon in an opinion piece, “Nut allergies — a Yuppie invention.”

Your kid doesn’t have an allergy to nuts. Your kid has a parent who needs to feel special. Your kid also spends recess running and screaming, “No! Stop! Don’t rub my head with peanut butter!”

Yes, a tiny number of kids have severe peanut allergies that cause anaphylactic shock, and all their teachers should be warned, handed EpiPens and given a really expensive gift at Christmas. But unless you’re a character on “Heroes,” genes don’t mutate fast enough to have caused an 18% increase in childhood food allergies between 1997 and 2007. And genes certainly don’t cause 25% of parents to believe that their kids have food allergies, when 4% do. Yuppiedom does.

 Boy, talk about risk taking, telling parents they’re silly gooses. A brave man, that Stein.

Stein talked to Harvard doctor and social scientist Nicholas Christakis, who had written an essay in the British Medical Journal, in which he observed that parental responses “bear many of the hallmarks of mass psychogenic illness.” (BMJ, “This Allergies Hysteria Is Just Nuts,” Dec. 13, 2008.)

Since food allergies kill about as many people as lightning strikes each year, we probably don’t need to ban peanuts from schools or put warnings on every product saying it was “made in a factory that also has a break room where a guy named Dave often sneaks in a King Size Snickers despite this ‘diet’ he says he’s on.”

When I talked to Christakis, he made it clear that — unlike me — he doesn’t think peanut allergies represent a mass hysteria. That’s because scientists believe in rigorous study and proof, while opinion columnists believe in saying something outrageous to get attention.

But we did agree that it is strange how peanut allergies are only an issue in rich, lefty communities.

“We don’t see this problem much in African American or poor communities. So there’s something going on here. We don’t see them in Ecuador and Guatemala,” Christakis said.

But Creswell — on the road between enlightened Eugene and the coast — or Portland International Airport? Peanut paranoia.

This sort of reaction disconnected from real risk causes all sorts of troubles for society and the economy. Children are frightened unnecessarily, parents waste time and energy on unnecesary peanut pursuits, and great amounts of money are spent unproductively.  Food companies have to reformulate their products and run labels through additional legal review, costs ultimately borne by the consumer.

Even small businesses suffer. That Dairy Queen in Creswell had to order the sign, buy the sign, and post the sign. It’s a fast food restaurant for goodness sakes!

Meanwhile, consumers are scared off peanuts and members of the public who might ocassionally enjoy a peanut snack are deprived of the opportunity. Remember when getting just a bag of peanuts was offensive scrimping by the airlines? Oh, how we now long for those days.

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