According to some media outlets, food allergies in American children are on the rise, now affecting about 3 million kids. The media is citing a recent report by the CDC, a comprehensive federal study of the problem. Branum and Lukacs, NCHS Data Brief No. 10, “Food Allergy Among U.S. Children: Trends in Prevalence and Hospitalizations,” (October 2008). The study reports that about 1 in 26 children had food allergies last year, up from 1 in 30 kids in 1997.
Food allergy is a potentially serious immune response to eating specific foods or food additives. Eight types of food account for over 90% of allergic reactions in affected individuals: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat. About 1 in 50 are allergic to shellfish and nearly 1 in 100 react to peanuts. Other research suggests that about 1 in 40 Americans will have a milk allergy at some point in their lives, and 1 in 50 percent will be allergic to eggs. Reactions to these foods by an allergic person can range from a tingling sensation around the mouth and lips to hives to death, depending on the severity of the allergy.
• In 2007, approximately 3 million children under age 18 years (3.9%) were reported to have a food or digestive allergy in the previous 12 months.
• From 1997 to 2007, the prevalence of reported food allergy increased 18% among children under age 18 years.
• Children with food allergy are two to four times more likely to have other related conditions such as asthma and other allergies, compared with children without food allergies.
• From 2004 to 2006, there were approximately 9,500 hospital discharges per year with a diagnosis related to food allergy among children under age 18 years.
While some are quick to blame product manufacturers, nobody knows for sure what’s driving the increase. The mechanisms by which a person develops an allergy to specific foods are largely unknown. Food allergy is more prevalent in children than adults, and a majority of affected children will “outgrow” food allergies with age.
A likely big part of the explanation of the new data is a from of reporting bias, as parents are more aware and quicker to have their kids checked out by a doctor these days. Parents and doctors are both more likely to consider food as the trigger for generic symptoms like vomiting, skin rashes and breathing problems. Parents today are quicker to take their kids to specialists to check out the possibility of food allergies. Thus, the findings could be related to increased awareness, reporting, and use of specific medical diagnostic codes for food allergy rather than a real increase in the number children who are experiencing food-allergic reactions.
The fact that a small number of the population is so constituted that they may suffer severe reactions to products which may be harmless or generally beneficial to others poses a dilemma to the legal scholars and courts. Generally speaking, the allergic or unusually susceptible plaintiff has found the road to financial recovery a difficult one, irrespective of the theory of recovery, the manufacturer of a reasonably safe product generally having been held not liable for damages where the basis of the injury was an allergy, hypersensitivity, or unusual susceptibility on the part of the user. See 63 Am. Jur. 2d, Products Liability § 1453. Plaintiffs’ main theory in allergy cases is that the supplier should be liable for damages arising from an allergenic, idiosyncratic reaction to its product where it has failed to give adequate and timely warning. E.g., Livingston v. Marie Callender’s, Inc., 85 Cal. Rptr. 2d 528, 533 (Cal. App. 1999) (warning for allergy to MSG); Brown v. McDonald’s Corp., 655 N.E.2d 440, 444 (Ohio App. 1995) (warning for allergy to seaweed); Advance Chem. Co. v. Harter, 478 So.2d 444, 448 (Fla. App. 1985) (warning for allergy to ammonia); Gober v. Revlon, Inc., 317 F.2d 47, 50 (4th Cir. 1963) (warning for allergy to nail polish). At times, plaintiffs will also try to add a manufacturing defect claim in the nature of an alleged failure to reduce or minimize the amount of the allergen in the product by washing, for example. This was seen in the latex glove mass tort.