Some of the best people I know grow peanuts and promote peanuts. They accept that some people are allergic to peanuts and they contribute significantly to research trying to find an alternative to their crop making anyone sick.
I’ve visited peanut farms, buying points, shellers, blanchers — everything involved with peanuts over my career — never have I heard anyone suggest anything other than genuine concern about people with peanut allergies.
With all that in mind, you may understand why I was particularly vexed to learn that my nine-year old granddaughter, who lives with my wife and I, won’t be able to take her favorite lunch item to school this year. I won’t say she’s addicted to Smuckers peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — but she is certainly fond of them.
She started to school — fourth grade — on Aug. 11 with no PBJ. She is bright and insightful beyond her years and she could not understand why she couldn’t take her favorite food item for lunch. After all, she pleaded, it was okay to take PBJs her first three years, why is it not okay to take them this year.
I plan to ask the school principle and/or the school board that exact question. The answer given to us is that someone in the fourth grade at my granddaughter’s school may have an allergy to peanuts.
I’m fully aware of the dangers of peanut allergies. I also am aware of how rare these allergies are and how often they are miss-diagnosed. I have an allergy to Allium cepa — onions. I don’t expect McDonald’s to quit serving onions on their hamburgers because I may go into their store and I may order something that may contain onions.
I would never propose anything that would put any child in danger nor oppose anything that would lower the risk of a danger.
That said, I don’t see any risk to a nine year old child who can read, who knows he or she is allergic to peanuts, who is in one of six fourth grade classes to allow other students to bring clearly marked PEANUT BUTTER sandwiches to lunch.
Nine year old kids can read. They can differentiate between their lunchbox and someone else’s lunch box. There is no risk — even if the student with the allergy is in the same fourth grade class. In five of the six fourth grade classes there is even less risk because the student with the allergies has no access, even if they couldn’t read and didn’t understand the risk of eating peanuts.
Taking risk from reasonable to absurd levels, parents of school-age children contend that even a smear of peanut butter left on a table is a threat. Wrong! According to research conducted by Johns-Hopkins University, that remote threat can be completely nullified by a simple wiping off with any number of sanitizing products. In their study, Johns-Hopkins researchers tested the effectiveness of various cleaning products against a tablespoon of peanut butter smeared across a tabletop. They found that plain water, Formula 409 cleanser, Lysol sanitizing wipes and Target-brand cleaner with bleach all eliminated the peanut allergen.
That’s a tablespoon of peanut butter — not a smear, not a trace amount left on the hands of a student who eats a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. Requiring students who bring peanut butter sandwiches to lunch bring a clean-wipe and wash their hands is reasonable. Preventing them from having a peanut butter sandwich is not.
Further research, released earlier this year, indicates most children can overcome the threat to peanut allergies. The study was conducted by Cambridge University hospitals in the UK.
Researchers took a group of 23 children allergic to peanuts and gave them small amounts of peanuts to eat daily, usually starting with 1 mg. The peanut quantity was increased carefully every two weeks, until the children could eat about five peanuts.
They took this dose daily for at least six weeks, mostly tolerating it well except for some temporary mouth itching or abdominal pain, the report says.
The results showed that 21 of the 23 children, or 91 percent, can safely eat at least five peanuts every day without any reaction. One of the children can get two peanuts a day, and one dropped out of the study. After six months, 19 of them could tolerate 12 peanuts at a time, and after one year, 15 participants could tolerate 32 peanuts. Participants said they didn't have to carefully read food labels or fear the allergy anymore.
"This is very exciting, clearly, because here we have somebody who can have anaphylaxis and deadly reaction from trace amounts, and you're converting this person into somebody who can tolerate a significant amount of the food," said Dr. Anna Nowak-Wegrzyn, associate professor of pediatrics at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.
Banning nutritious, tasty food products that finicky-eating nine-year olds love is not the answer to solving the food allergy problems and mitigating the risk involved with allergies of a single student. Preventing kids from eating PBJ sandwiches from lunch makes no sense, and I suspect, would quickly be squelched in a court of law.
Ultimately, safety of the student in question is the responsibility of the parent, with the assistance of the school. Nowhere can I find a policy that removes peanut butter sandwiches from a school to be in place. It’s not a solution, it’s not enforceable, and it’s blatantly unfair to kids who love peanut butter sandwiches.
I have no doubt that the Alabama Peanut Growers Association or the National Peanut Board would be most happy to provide safety information, or even a person to present this information so that students can understand the risk and understand why they need to clean off their desk and wash their hands after eating lunch.
For kids with true allergies to peanuts — keep in mind peanuts are legumes — totally different from pecans or other nut crops. Education, caution and common sense can reduce the risk to the same level as banning peanut butter products. The risk will always be there, but taking the quick-fix, less work and effort approach of banning products other students like and in many cases need, is not a good approach.