June 13, 2010

Should Peanuts Be Banned From Flights?

Federal regulators are considering banning the serving of peanuts on commercial airline flights.

Advocates say the move would ease fears and potential harm to about 1.8 million Americans that suffer from peanut allergies.  However, peanut farmers and food packagers see it as overreaching and unfair to their precious legume.

"The peanut is such a great snack and such an American snack," Martin Kanan, CEO of the King Nut Companies, an Ohio company that packages the peanuts served by most U.S. airlines, told The Associated Press (AP). "What's next? Is it banning peanuts in ballparks?"

The U.S. Transportation Department gave notice last week, twelve years after Congress ordered it to back off peanuts, that it's gathering feedback from allergy sufferers, medical experts, the food industry and the public on whether to ban or restrict in-flight peanuts.

The proposal is an 84-page document including several other proposed consumer protections for air travelers.  Three options were given:  banning serving of peanuts on all planes; prohibiting peanuts on when an allergic passenger requests it in advance; or requiring an undefined "peanut-free zone" when a passenger asks for one.

The document also states "we are particularly interested in hearing views on how peanuts and peanut products brought on board aircraft by passengers should be handled."

Spokesman Bill Mosely said the department is responding to concerns from travelers who either suffer from the allergy or have allergic children.

"We're just asking for comment on whether we should do any of these three things," Mosely told AP. "We may not do any of them."

Dr. Scott Sicherer, who studies food allergies at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, told AP that a few limited studies on airline passengers with peanut allergies has found a number of people reporting symptoms, but few were severe or life-threatening.

"But there's discomfort," Sicherer said. "It's sort of like if you were allergic to dogs and all of a sudden they brought 50 dogs onto the plane."

The Transportation Department previously weighed imposing peanut-free zones on airlines in 1998.  However, the agency retreated after getting a hostile response from Congress, which threatened to cut its budget.

Huge airline companies like Continental, United, U.S. Airways and JetBlue have voluntarily stopped serving packaged peanuts.  Delta and Southwest still hand out goobers as in-flight snacks.  American Airlines does not serve packaged peanuts, but it does offer trail mix and other snacks that can obtain peanut ingredients.

Georgia, the nation's top peanut producing state, is not in agreement with the idea of government regulation of peanuts on planes.

"The peanut industry feels like we're being picked on," Armond Morris, who grows peanuts on about 270 acres in rural Irwinville and serves as chairman of the Georgia Peanut Commission, told the news agency. "If we're going to go targeting food products, maybe we just need to ban all food" on planes.

Advocates with the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network say the answer is simple:  planes are confined spaces where the air and dust particles get re-circulated.  There is no way to stop and get off during a severe reaction during flight.

"It's a different environment when you're basically 30,000 feet in the air," said Chris Weiss, the group's vice president of advocacy and government relations. "If you're sitting around a bunch of people and all of a sudden they're all handed packages of peanuts, that could release enough peanut dust into the air to trigger a reaction."


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