Statement by Food Allergy Research & Education and Members of Clinical Advisory Board on Depiction of Food Allergies in Entertainment Media
The ongoing controversy that has emerged since the Feb. 9 release of Peter Rabbit may serve as a tipping point in the way food allergy is depicted in the movies and on television. At the very least, it serves as a critically important educational opportunity.
Nearly 6 million children in the U.S. have food allergies, and 40 percent of those children have experienced a serious allergic reaction such as anaphylaxis, which is potentially fatal.
As longtime food allergy researchers, clinicians and advocates, it is our hope that screenwriters and producers in Hollywood pay close attention to the impact their plotlines and jokes have on the millions of people affected by food allergy, a potentially life-threatening disease.
In this modern take on Peter Rabbit, the title character tries to eliminate his enemy, Mr. McGregor, by throwing blackberries at him with a slingshot – the idea being that Mr. McGregor will die of an allergic reaction because he has an allergy to blackberries.
We are stunned and disappointed that this scene made it into the final cut, and believe it is only the latest example of a lack of awareness, education and empathy on the part of Hollywood filmmakers.
Playing an anaphylactic reaction for laughs, using a person’s food allergy as a way to harm them, or having a character be the butt of jokes because they have a food allergy has no place in the movies, but is egregiously out of place in a children’s movie.
While we understand that in the case of Peter Rabbit, the scene in question was a fictional plot point that was so over the top that no one should take it seriously, we think the continued lack of care shown when food allergies are depicted in movies and television represents a major problem that may have a damaging effect on the food allergy community in the real world.
Over the years, there have been a number of instances in which food allergies are portrayed in an offensive or careless way by Hollywood. While we have made major strides in helping the general public understand that food allergies are a serious public health issue, we are taken backwards when a movie, television show or comedian chooses to make food allergy the butt of a joke and gets laughs out of it.
Researchers who have studied the impact of such storylines have made a strong case that they can potentially have a harmful effect. A 2016 study from the journal Health Communications, “Using Health Conditions for Laughs and Health Policy Support: The Case of Food Allergies,” analyzed 115 television shows and movies referencing food allergies. Humorous depictions of food allergy were most common, accounting for 59 percent of the media clips. These humorous clips downplayed the seriousness of food allergy, with only one-third portraying food allergies as life-threatening.
In a related study, college students were shown videos and then surveyed to compare their perceptions and knowledge. The students who saw a situation comedy episode featuring a severe food allergy reaction showed less support for policies to help keep grade schoolers with food allergies safe than did college students who saw an episode from the same comedy that did not address food allergy. The college students exposed to food allergy humor had lower measures of support for policies such as keeping food out of elementary school classrooms, restricting peanut products in lunches, and restricting homemade foods from class parties.
Researchers concluded that “Our results indicate that food allergies indeed do seem to be treated humorously in the media more often than not, and this can matter. The humorous treatment decreased food-allergy-related policy support for elementary schools via decreased perceptions of the seriousness of food allergies” Additionally, they wrote, “Even well-intentioned efforts to portray serious health issues in comedies may have unintended negative effects.”
In the U.S., about one-third of children with food allergies are bullied because of their food allergy. In fact, children with food allergies may be bullied more often than their peers without food allergies. Forms of bullying may be verbal or physical, and while usually the bully is a student, in some cases, the perpetrator is an adult.
Tragically, a 13-year-old boy died in the UK after being deliberately exposed to cheese, and just recently we learned of three teen girls in Pennsylvania who sent a classmate to the hospital by purposely exposing her to pineapple. This issue compels us to be empathetic and supportive.
Storylines in which a character is assaulted with their food allergen, or mocked because of their food allergies, or an allergic reaction is treated incorrectly, are unacceptable.
We are appreciative that Sony Pictures issued an apology for the Peter Rabbit scene. But we call on all filmmakers and screenwriters to work with food allergy advocates to treat food allergies responsibly, realistically and sensitively in entertainment media.
James R. Baker Jr., MD, CEO and Chief Medical Officer of Food Allergy Research & Education
Amal Assa’ad, MD, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center
J. Andrew Bird, MD, UT Southwestern Medical Center; Children’s Medical Center Dallas
Tara Carr, MD, University of Arizona
Christina Ciaccio, MD, MSc, The University of Chicago
Carla Davis, MD, Baylor College of Medicine; Texas Children’s Hospital Food Allergy Program
Paul Dowling, MD, Children’s Mercy Kansas City; University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine
David Fleischer, MD, Children’s Hospital Colorado
Mark Glaum, MD, PhD, Morsani College of Medicine, University of South Florida
Kirsi Jarvinen-Seppo, MD, PhD, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry
David Jeong, MD, Virginia Mason Medical Center
Rita Kachru, MD, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA
Edwin Kim, MD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Frederick Leickly, MD, MPH, Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health
Stephanie A. Leonard, MD, Rady Children’s Hospital; University of California-San Diego
Donald Leung, MD, PhD, National Jewish Health
Rachel L. Miller, MD, Columbia University Medical Center
Kari Nadeau, MD, PhD, Sean N. Parker Allergy Center for Allergy Research at Stanford University
Jacqueline Pongracic, MD, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine; Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago
Georgiana M. Sanders, MD, MS, University of Michigan Health System
Lynda Schneider, MD, Harvard Medical School; Boston Children’s Hospital
Amy M. Scurlock, MD, Arkansas Children's Hospital
Hemant Sharma, MD, Children’s National Health System
Wayne G. Shreffler, Massachusetts General Hospital; MassGeneral Hospital for Children
Scott H. Sicherer, MD, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Jonathan Spergel, MD, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
Panida Sriaroon, MD, University of South Florida - St. Petersburg
Jonathan Tam, MD, Gores Family Allergy Center at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles
Stephen Tilles, MD, Northwest Allergy & Asthma Center
Pooja Varshney, MD, ‘Specially for Children, an affiliate of Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas
Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) works on behalf of the 15 million Americans with food allergies, including all those at risk for life-threatening anaphylaxis. This potentially deadly disease affects 1 in every 13 children in the U.S. – or roughly two in every classroom. FARE’s mission is to improve the quality of life and the health of individuals with food allergies, and to provide them hope through the promise of new treatments. Our work is organized around three core tenets: LIFE – support the ability of individuals with food allergies to live safe, productive lives with the respect of others through our education and advocacy initiatives; HEALTH – enhance the healthcare access of individuals with food allergies to state-of-the-art diagnosis and treatment; and HOPE – encourage and fund research in both industry and academia that promises new therapies to improve the allergic condition. For more information, please visit www.foodallergy.org and find us on Twitter@FoodAllergy, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest.