Published on 10/21/98

Peanut Bans Penalize Georgia Farmers, Experts Say

University of Georgia experts say recent removals of peanuts from school lunchrooms are overreactions that can unfairly hurt Georgia farmers.

A few New York and California school districts have pulled peanuts and peanut products from their lunchrooms in an attempt to protect allergic children.

A U.S. Department of Transportation ruling would have forced airlines to either remove peanuts from flights or designate peanut-free seats. But Tuesday, Congress put a provision in the $520 billion Omnibus Appropriations Conference Report that will block the ruling.

In Georgia, where peanuts are a major crop, actions banning peanuts could pose problems.

"Even a 1 percent decline in the consumption of peanut butter and snack peanuts would cost Georgia farmers around $5 million," said Don Shurley, an agricultural economist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"The total impact on the state's economy, and on the economy of many small towns and rural communities, would be more than $15 million," he said.

Schools are major users of peanuts and products such as peanut butter, Shurley said. Almost 90 percent of the peanuts used in peanut butter, and two-thirds of those in snack foods, are "runner" peanuts.

These peanuts are grown mostly in the Southeast and in Texas and Oklahoma. "Georgia alone grows about half of all the U.S. runner-type peanuts," he said.

Growers worry that hastily formed school policies could have a ripple effect on other markets, including retail customers.

Peanut consumption had been climbing. A 3 percent rise last year was the second straight year of increasing consumption after a dramatic decline in 1991-95.

Banning peanut products and creating peanut-free areas in school systems were prompted by parents of children who are allergic to the high-protein legume.

Six foods cause most food allergies: (not ranked)

Soybeans, milk, peanuts, wheat, fish/seafood and eggs

Peanut allergies can be among the deadliest food allergies. But they are also among the rarest.

"About 5 percent of all young children will develop some kind of food allergy. But most outgrow it by their teen years," said Connie Crawley, an Extension Service nutritionist and registered dietitian with the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

"Peanut allergies seem to be one of the few that people don't outgrow."

While a person's sensitivity to peanuts can vary, one severe condition that can be prompted by peanut allergies is called anaphylaxis.

"The condition results in facial swelling, throat swelling and problems with breathing shortly after the allergic person eats peanuts or a food containing peanuts," Crawley said.

"In some severe cases," she said, "a person can get sick from just breathing dust from a peanut plant or kissing someone who has recently eaten peanuts. It can be very dangerous. But not everyone who is allergic has such a serious reaction. Some have only a rash or an upset stomach."

Crawley knows the dangers faced by the tiny percentage allergic to peanuts. But she still doesn't support removing peanuts from school lunch nutrition programs.

"No one should make knee-jerk decisions when dealing with food allergies," she said. "If we did, schools wouldn't be serving dairy products, since the largest percentage of food allergies are milk allergies."

Crawley said only six foods cause most food allergies.

"Peanuts are very nutritious. They shouldn't be restricted unless a doctor pinpoints an allergy," she said. "People should never try to diagnose themselves, either. That's why doctors conduct skin tests -- to be accurate."

Crawley said in her 20-year career as a nutritionist, she has never had a child client who was allergic to peanuts.

"You aren't going to find peanut-allergic children in every school," she said. "But when an incident does occur, it can be a dangerous reaction. Children known to be this sensitive must carry medication to prevent anaphylactic shock."

Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.