In case you haven’t heard, food giant General Mills is experiencing a bit of a backlash over its newly launched Multi-Grain Peanut Butter Cheerios. People concerned about the cereal’s impact on those with peanut allergies have protested the new flavor; voices are particularly vehement among mommy bloggers – some of whom even have called for a ban on the new flavor. The peanut-butter Cheeiros, protesters say, are too similar to regular Cheerios so popular as a toddler snack, and could cause deathly illness in kids who unwittingly share them.
The controversy shines a light on the growing problem peanut allergies present not only for their sufferers but as a liability for food purveyors, caregivers and even big corporations like airlines – some of which have replaced the ubiquitous in-flight peanuts with pretzel nuggets, to the woe of high-protein, low-carb flyers. At one point, the federal Department of Transportation even considered an outright ban on peanuts for commercial flights.
And it’s worth noting too that the burgeoning ranks of peanut allergy sufferers also have created opportunties for niche businesses from nut-free bakeries to book authors to clinics to – yes, people who train peanut-detecting service dogs.
According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, peanut allergies among children have tripled since 1997. No one knows why, but it’s an emotional topic that stirs heated debate on both sides when preventative measures are discussed – as General Mills is being reminded this week.
Seek out your region’s food-processing firms, commercial bakeries, canneries and the like (the state agriculture department can probably help with a list). If your region isn’t home to any big food firms, you still can localize this story in a number of way, including:
Restaurants or food-service firms. I’ve actually heard of people walking into a Thai restaurant demanding peanut- free cuisine. That’s a pretty far-fetched request, but how do restaurants handle cross-contamination issues, employee training about food allergies and other practical considerations? What are their rights in, perhaps, refusing to serve patrons who make peanut allergies (or other food-related medical issues) known, for fear of liability? What about food-service and catering firms, especially those that handle school lunches and hospital meals, for example? How have menus, packaging, service protocols and other business considerations changed as allergies have burgeoned?
Food distributors and grocers. How have product offerings shifted to respond to the allergy issue? Are pastries, for example, labeled differently? Do ice creams feature prominent “peanut products” stickers, or do food makers opt for almonds and other less controversial nuts? How is demand for peanut butter holding up, and foods containing peanut butter, from pudding to frozen sandwiches? What about peanut oil, peanut snacks and their substitutes – what are consumers seeking?
Day care centers. How do for-profit caregiving facilities handle the issue — in terms of staff training, disclosure requirements, snack policies, and the like. Are the administrative burdens of managing allergy policies costly?
Liability insurance. Talk with financial and insurance advisors — have recommendations for businesses like those above changed in light of greater allergy concerns? What about homeowners, for that matter: If you unwittingly sicken someone – or worse – by serving a peanut-laden concotion, what is your exposure?
New niche businesses. As mentioned, a number of bakeries appear to specialize in nut-free goods, and as this national nut-free directory shows, so a number of other eateries and food kitchens. Worth a look for companies in your area,and do Google “nut-free” plus a geographic term from your region to likely find more. A great source of trend and small-business stories.