image boy pushing peanuts away

What Can Peter Rabbit Teach Us About Food Allergies?

My children and I were excited to see the classic Tale of Peter Rabbit come to life on the movie screen. The Peter Rabbit we grew up with whimpered home to his mother with a belly ache after eating too much food from Mr. McGregor’s garden. In Peter Rabbit, the movie, a computer generated Peter and his siblings are determined to remove the new heir to old Mr. McGregor’s garden, his nephew Thomas. They employ a variety of methods to harm their arch enemy, including bludgeoning with garden tools, electrocution, and death by blackberry.

Halfway through the movie, Thomas informs his love interest that he has a severe blackberry allergy (side note: there are no published reports of anyone with a confirmed blackberry allergy). Later, Peter’s sister attacks Thomas with a blackberry via slingshot, which ends up in his mouth and causes an immediate allergic reaction. This scene is very short, perhaps no more than 2 minutes long, and he recovers quickly after prompt treatment.

This depiction caused a swift and strong response from the food allergy community. Several mainstream media outlets have covered the story and Sony Pictures issued an apology for the insensitive nature of this scene.

Why the uproar? Approximately five percent of the population needs to strictly avoid eating specific foods due to food allergy. Accidental ingestion or even cross contamination can cause immediate onset and reproducible reactions, including anaphylaxis, which can be life-threatening. In addition to reading labels on every packaged product, people with food allergies need to exercise caution at restaurants, bakeries, and ice cream parlors. They also need to have immediate access to an epinephrine autoinjector at all times, in case anaphylaxis occurs.

Thankfully, fatal reactions are rare, but the possibility of such a severe outcome through just one accidental ingestion can severely lessen quality of life for those with food allergies. This is certainly no laughing matter. In addition, 30 percent of children with food allergies experience bullying. This occurs many ways, including other children purposefully rubbing food on their skin and even from adults who mock them or exclude them from activities. Trust me, nobody wants to have a food allergy and living with one can be challenging in many ways.

There are a few aspects of the portrayal of food allergy in Peter Rabbit that merit consideration:

The Good

  • Thomas modeled good communication when he politely refused water containing blackberries and described how severe his reaction could become.
  • His epinephrine autoinjector was immediately available and used properly, two areas that often lead to ill preparedness in real-life.

The Bad

  • The rabbits make fun of his food allergy, even mocking those with ‘made up’ allergies.
  • Anyone who has had a life-threatening reaction to a food could be negatively impacted by seeing this scene play out on the big screen.
  • Depicting someone’s food allergy as way to harm them, in essence bullying, demonstrates to children (and some adults) that this behavior is acceptable or even funny.

The Ugly

Much of the response to the concerns raised by the food allergy community has been demeaning and downright cruel. Misinformation surrounding food allergies is quite common. Many adults do not understand how serious reactions can become, the need for strict avoidance, and even blame parents for somehow creating the rise in food allergies by being ‘too clean’ or acting like ‘helicopter parents’. This renewed discussion has only fed the flames stoked by some who feel food allergies are ‘made up’ or feel put out by their child’s school no longer allowing food at parties.

Perspectives differ. Some see Peter Rabbit as insensitive to those with food allergies. Others see it as a fictional tale depicting talking rabbits who try to harm a human in comical ways. Either way, this has clearly evoked strong emotional responses from many people. Once the emotions settle, perhaps conversation can occur. Hopefully it will be one that focuses on facts and education surrounding the very real and serious food allergies that millions of people live with every day.

For more information on the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Allergy and Immunology Services, click here or follow Dr. Stukus on Twitter.

David Stukus, MD
Dr. David Stukus is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Section of Allergy and Immunology, at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Dr. Dave, as his patients call him, is passionate about increasing awareness for allergies and asthma. His personal life is filled with fun and chaos as he is married to a Pediatric Emergency Room physician and they have 2 energetic children. His rare free time is spent following his beloved Pittsburgh and Ohio State sports teams. Follow Dr. Dave on Twitter @AllergyKidsDoc for great allergy/asthma tips!

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