As reported by multiple sources, a person with food allergies is more likely to be murdered than to die from a severe allergic reaction. This claim comes from a study by researchers at Imperial College London, who calculated the risk of dying from a food allergy is 3.25 : 1 million for those age 0-19 years old. I don’t have a food allergy, and I can’t speak for those I know who do, but does anyone else find this comparison unsettling? As a food scientist, there are three points that concern me the most: the comparison, the goal and the story untold.
Green-Eyed Insight – Food Allergies and Murder
Comparing the risk of being murdered to any other cause of death seems questionable because murder, like obesity, is multi-factorial. Murder, like food allergies, affects children and adults of all ages and ethnicities. However, some people have a higher risk of homicide due to certain factors like occupation and location. If Bob is a police officer working a tough neighborhood, common statistics on murder don’t apply to him. If Susan has multiple food allergies or extremely severe allergies, the results of this study might not apply to her. By skipping over the details for the sake of the Big Picture, it’s difficult for people with food allergies to truly understand how the findings affect them.
So why choose murder for the comparison? According to a popular TV show, there are at least 1000 Ways to Die. Murder is not fun to talk about; it’s not even a fun word to say (like “plethora” and “fluffy). The word “murder” doesn’t even appear in the study’s title or abstract, so why use it in the headlines? To answer this, we must assess the goal.
The word “murder” appears only once in the paper published by Dr. Boyle and his team; in fact the conclusion of this paper compares fatal food anaphylaxis to accidental death, not murder . So why have those covering this research study latched onto the more unpleasant term? Perhaps because it catches more attention.
If you were scanning the news, looking at the words without actually reading them, wouldn’t you take notice when your eyes landed on the word “murder”? Therein lies the paradox of prevalence versus press coverage. This paradox exists with other news stories, too. For example, I’ve often heard people questioning whether child abduction is actually happening more often, or if we’re just reporting a higher percentage of them. I can almost hear my mother now, “In my day we played outside until the lights came on; we didn’t get a ride to our friend’s house, we had to walk; we knew our neighbors by first and last name…”
It’s unlikely that a large percentage of murders make the headlines, but when someone dies of a food allergy, it doesn’t just make the news, it becomes an urban legend. Almost everyone has heard the story of the girl who died because her boyfriend ate a peanut butter sandwich hours before kissing her. According to Food Allergy and Research Education (FARE), 15 million Americans have food allergies and suffer life-threatening anaphylaxis. With the increase in prevalence of children born with food allergies (1 in 13 children), it’s only natural to wonder whether the mortality rate from fatal food anaphylaxis has also increased. Comparing fatal food anaphylaxis to murder might actually provide perspective. Perhaps that is the goal – perspective and reassurance. The reassurance comes from Dr. Boyle, himself:“We don’t want to belittle the concerns of people with food allergies or their families, and of course people should continue to take reasonable precautions. That said, we want to reassure them that having a food allergy makes a very small difference to someone’s overall risk of death.” 
Nonetheless, if the goal of the headlines is to catch attention and raise awareness of how uncommon death-by-food-allergy is, does that really comfort those who live with food allergies?
The Story Untold
How many people do you know have “Meatless Mondays”? How about “Allergen Free Fridays”? It’s the holiday season, which for many means attending holiday parties and bringing treats to friends and coworkers. It’s rare that food allergens are considered in situations like these. For the sake of those with food allergies, maybe it’s time to change that. Every time I’m on an airplane, I hesitate before opening my peanuts, wondering if the person next to me would speak up if they had a nut allergy. Did you know…?
- According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies among children increased approximately 50% between 1997 and 2011
- Food labels weren’t even required to call out the allergens they contained until the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), which took effect January 1, 2006
- Undeclared allergens were the number one reason for food recalls in a 12 month period ending September 2012 
- Allergens were the single largest cause of food recalls, representing approximately 40 percent of recalls reported in the third quarter of 2013… Allergens have been the first or second largest cause of food recalls in the past seven quarters 
This study may or may not give you peace of mind if you have food allergies. It’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around the likelihood of dying from accidental causes, and it’s even harder to really have an impact on the murder rate. Instead, how about trying to be more allergen-aware this holiday season?
Here is one account of an Allergen-Free Thanksgiving:
A quick internet search could turn up a plethora of allergen-free holiday recipes – why not give it a shot, take a stab at it, finish the year with a bang.
 T. Umasunthar, J. Leonardi-Bee, M. Hodes, P. J. Turner, C. Gore, P. Habibi, J. O. Warner and R.J. Boyle. Incidence of fatal food anaphylaxis in people with food allergy: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical & Experimental Allergy, 2013 (43) 1333–1341.
 “Dying From Food Allergy Less Likely than being Murdered” Technology Networks Food and Beverage Analysis. TechnologyNetworks.com, 25, November 2013. Web. 03 Dec. 2013.
 Pearlmutter, Richard, MS. “The Top 3 Reasons for Food Recalls Are….” Fooducate.com Daily Tips. Fooducate.com, 10 June 2013. Web. 03 Dec. 2013. http://blog.fooducate.com/2013/06/10/the-top-3-reasons-for-food-recalls-are/.
: “Food Recalls Double in Consecutive Quarters” Food Safety Magazine. 26 November 2013. Web. 03 Dec. 2013.