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Wednesday, February 7, 2007

It Takes A Village - Peanut Industry

Before the events of Boxing Day I was a regular peanut eater. Though the sacrifice is obviously worthwhile, I dearly miss slathering my toast with Adam's peanut butter each morning … I'm salivating just at the thought!

By now readers are familiar with my 'It Takes A Village' series. The series follows the theme that 'It Takes A Village to Avoid A Peanut'. This time I focus on the Peanut Industry. If you make a product that is nutritious, safe (and tasty!) for 98% of the population, should you be made to worry about the very tiny minority that has a peanut allergy? Should you feel obligated to help find ways to treat or prevent a peanut allergy?

In short, is anaphylaxis due to peanut allergy your problem?

I ask this not on a personal level, (obviously a basic level of humanity encourages people help one another), but is it reasonable to expect the industry to contribute their limited research budget to peanut allergy research for the 2%, at the expense of funding research into production or agriculture innovations that would improve the product for the 98%?

It is a fair question – think about it.

This week I called Patrick Archer, President of the American Peanut Council. This organization represents peanut producers, growers, shellers and manufacturers in the United States. You could easily assume that he has a bias toward that portion of the population is forced to live in fear of his products. That could not be farther from the truth.

I assured Patrick that NoPeanuts was not anti-peanut and was not the work of an anarchist 'peanut parent'. I was sure to bring up my aforementioned love of peanuts and my inability to replace peanut butter … cashew butter is okay but it is just not the same.

Patrick and the peanut industry are empathetic toward those who cannot eat their products due to peanut allergy. When I told him that our daughter recently had a terrifying anaphylactic reaction after possibly not even eating a peanut he seemed genuine in his concern.

The challenge in representing the diverse and numerous participants in any industry is that you have to be well-versed on many topics. Given that peanut allergy only affects 2% of his market, I was impressed by his depth of his knowledge of peanut allergy and the patience with which he discussed peanut allergy with me.

For example, in my naivety I mentioned that our daughter had a skin reaction to (we think) a graham wafer and the only ingredient I could see that might trigger a food allergy was vegetable shortening (full ingredient list here ). I told him I suspected this might be due to the shortening including peanuts. He patiently explained that peanut oil would not likely be in shortening due to its higher cost versus other oils, and even if it was included, refined peanut oil is free of the proteins that make peanuts allergic.

"Oh, sure", you say. Of course he is patient when he explains to you that peanuts did not likely cause this reaction. He has a vested interest in that perspective. That was not my take. I found Patrick to be balanced and sincere in our discussion and he did not just default to a pro-peanut defense.

Patrick and his industry truly seem to care about those who have peanut allergy, food allergy in general or anaphylaxis. This is evident in its research funding program. Patrick cited several research projects over the past decade that were funded at least in part by the Peanut Council. He was up to date on the most current research and discussed some of the findings of promising projects with an air of optimism, as if he truly hoped that there was a solution whether or not it helped the bottom line of his constituents.

I think this is commendable. There are many other industries that could learn from this. I personally think that companies should be aware of, and held accountable for, the downstream impact on the environment or the populace at large.

Do I think that the peanut industry bears a responsibility to understand why some people go into anaphylaxis after eating their products? Yes, I do.

Do I think that, the peanut industry should play a leadership role in making their products safe for as many people as possible? Absolutely.

Thankfully Patrick and his industry agree. The peanut industry has been a good 'Villager', contributing over $4M to peanut allergy research in the past decade. The dollars fund research projects in multiple areas including: understanding the rising incidence of peanut allergy; developing allergic tests that gauge severity in addition to incidence; developing treatment or prevention options that could reduce the risk for those with anaphylaxis.

Though I was a little disappointed to learn that the research funding has not increased in the past few years to match the rising incidence of peanut allergy, I am still impressed with the funding that is in place and am left hopeful that this program will continue.

I also asked Patrick to confirm or dispel several 'peanut legends' that I have come across in my research.

**The caveat here is that this was a discussion between two non-medical people and is only for discussion purposes and should not be taken as medical advice – please discuss things with your allergist before relying on any of this information!**

I have read that increased prevalence in roasting of peanuts vs boiling has corresponded to an increased prevalence of severe peanut allergy.

Many consumers prefer roasted peanuts to boiled. This is nothing new. The techniques for roasting have not changed in 20 years, nor has the prevalence of roasting itself.

I have read conflicting things about whether bringing my daughter to a hockey game would be too great a risk.

You often hear of people being allergic to inhaled peanut particles or even the odor of peanuts. There is no research that demonstrates that the odor itself causes the allergy though it is possible for people to have a psychosomatic response that resembles an actual allergic reaction. These reactions would not result in anaphylaxis. As for inhaled peanut particles, research does indicate that this can cause an allergic reaction in some cases. Patrick noted that professional opinion on the subject is that airborne particles could not cause anaphylaxis.

So you would not be concerned about the hockey game scenario?

I am not a doctor so you would have to check with your allergist, but no, I would not personally be concerned about that. You would want to bring your Epi-Pen to be safe but the risk of anaphylaxis would likely be low.

(Incidentally, I am writing this on an airplane and of course the person behind me started his day by tearing into a bag of Planters at 7am. I learned today that as a result of our daughter's anaphylaxis the smell of peanuts is now sickening to me.)

What is your response to people who want to ban peanuts from schools and other places?

Education and awareness is a better strategy. You cannot completely ban peanuts and therefore a ban is actually risky since it can create a false sense of security. Controlling a day care environment is perhaps possible, and given that young children cannot manage their own allergy this makes more sense than trying to do the same for an entire school. The other issue is that peanuts are just one allergen and it would be virtually impossible to ban all food allergens.

Overall I enjoyed my conversation with Patrick and I look forward to chatting with him again in the future. The American Peanut Council is actively involved in research and also supports the good work of organizations such as Anaphylaxis Canada.

It Takes A Village to avoid a peanut and the Peanut Industry is making a meaningful contribution. In the future it would be great to see an increase in research funding and charitable work commensurate with the overall increase in peanut allergy prevalence. Current funding has been steady the past few years while the prevalence of peanut allergy and anaphylaxis are on the rise.

That being said, I am impressed overall by the work that the American Peanut Council has done so far for food allergy and anaphylaxis.


The Cookbook Junkie said...

You say only 2% of the population is allergic to peanuts but frankly I believe that if we could accurately count the number of people with peanut allergies it would be rising, in the U.S. at least. That is why the peanut industry is and should be concerned. If the numbers weren't rising, I think their contribution to peanut research would be commendable but since the numbers are rising, they're only smart to try to get to the bottom of this epidemic. And $4 million is a piddly amount. Piddly. Does that include money directly from Planters and other peanut-centric companies?

I have no scientific research to back my claim of rising PA rates. I base it on the fact that I regularly google peanut allergy terms, especially using the blog search feature. This is how I found this blog. Since I started doing this about a year ago, I regulary see bloggers post about finding out that their child has a peanut allergy. This is just a sampling of the population that blogs yet I see new cases pop up monthly. Not just peanuts but dairy, soy, wheat and other allergies, along with peanuts (if if I only searched on allergies removing the term peanut Lord knows what I would find). Something is happening. It's scary.

My son had a severe reaction after I baked salted peanut cookies. That is much stronger than just a whiff of peanut butter but when I people dispute inhalation reactions or call them a psychosomatic, I can honestly tell them I've seen a real inhalation reaction with my own two eyes. My son was less than 2 years old and we didn't even know he had a peanut allergy but that episode (coughing and vomitting) is what led me to believe he had PA. I was already wondering after another incident so I was careful not to get any peanut residue near him when I made the cookies.

NoPeanuts said...

In concur that more needs to be done. The incidence of all food allergy is rising and while $4M is a lot of money it only goes so far when it comes to research.

Here is a quote from the Food Allergy Project's 'facts' page:

"Food allergy research is woefully underfunded. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) spends less than $10 million a year on food allergy research, compared to $107 million on attention deficit disorder and $1.2 billion on diabetes. These are all important diseases that deserve attention."