Issue Date: Apr 24, 2006
By Michele Hujber
Kendra Ellway was 3 when she climbed into a cupboard and started playing with walnuts in her hand. When she emerged, she was covered in hives. A doctor told her parents that Ellway had a severe allergy to peanuts and tree nuts – almonds, cashews, pecans and other nuts. Had she eaten the walnuts, Ellway would have gone into anaphylactic shock, preventing her from breathing and possibly killing her.
“I have a lot of plain grilled chicken, plain salads with nothing on them, no salad dressings or anything, pasta with no sauce,” said Ellway, a sophomore at Rutgers College. When she eats at the dining hall, a chef has to prepare meals especially for her to prevent cross-contamination of cooking utensils. Ellway’s immune system is so sensitive that sometimes her palms itch from touching keyboards or handrails. “A lot of lotions have sweet almond oil. I’m okay as long as I wash up.”
Food allergies are a common, serious – and sometimes fatal – problem. Nearly 11 million Americans have food allergies; many are children. From 1997 to 2002, the number of children in the United States with peanut allergies doubled. Nearly 100,000 children in New Jersey have food allergies and the prevalence is rising.
In response to a mandate from the state Legislature, Rutgers researchers are designing a public awareness campaign on food allergies called “Ask Before You Eat.” “When it comes to keeping those with food allergies safe, everyone plays a critical role – even families that don’t have food allergies,” said Carol Byrd-Bredbenner, professor in the department of nutrition at Cook College. “People sometimes aren’t aware of how serious food allergies can be.”
Byrd-Bredbenner and Jackie Maurer, postdoctoral associate in nutritional sciences, are part of an interdisciplinary team with the Food Policy Institute (FPI) working on the campaign. William Hallman, director of FPI and a social psychologist, contributed expertise in psychology, and Brian Schilling, associate director of FPI, brought expertise in public policy.
In January 2005, the Legislature passed the bill mandating the campaign. The state Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) received the funds to carry out the mandate – with the stipulation that the campaign be completed by June 2006 – and turned to Rutgers for assistance. DHSS was already collaborating with the Food Policy Institute to develop and implement a plan for food emergency preparedness for regional retail food store managers.
Before work on the campaign began FPI convened an advisory group, including physicians, representatives from the restaurant industry and parents of children with allergies, to help guide the campaign development. “By putting the restaurant industry in the same room with concerned parents and medical experts, we were able to create a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts,” Hallman said. “We worked as a team to find a solution and address the unique needs of all of the stakeholders.”
One lesson learned from the advisory group was that the potential for fatalities from food allergies could not be overstressed. “Physicians and parents of children with allergies want those not affected by food allergies to understand just how serious and severe allergies can be,” Byrd-Bredbenner said.
The research included interviewing restaurant owners and staff around the state. “Restaurateurs told us that patrons need to speak up when they have a food allergy. These patrons should be specific about what they need to prevent a food allergy reaction and they should remember to tell the server about the problem before they order,” Byrd-Bredbenner said.
It is a tough balance to strike, said Ellway, who doesn’t eat at restaurants frequently. There is one eatery near her hometown in Kinnelon where the personnel cater to her condition.
“I want to stress it enough when I’m at a restaurant, but I don’t want them to turn back and say ‘Oh, this girl is harassing me, just give her whatever.’ You try to do it in the most nonirritating manner possible. A lot of times I do without rather than annoy people.” She said that her friends are understanding, but don’t grasp the severity of her allergy. “They think you just have a bad tummy.”
The Ask Before You Eat public information campaign will be delivered this May
via video loops at check-out lines in supermarkets, advertisements on movie screens
in theatres, half-page ads in newspapers, and articles in newsletters, magazines and newspapers throughout the state.
For more information, visit a href="http://www.foodallergy.rutgers.edu">www.foodallergy.rutgers.edu.
This article was published in the Apr 24, 2006 edition of the Rutgers Focus and is available online at http://urwebsrv.rutgers.edu/focus/article/link/1827/