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If anybody needed any more reason to take food allergies seriously, especially anybody in the food service industry interested in keeping their customers safe, a new study shows that nearly 10 percent of kids living in urban areas of the United States have some sort of food allergy.
Just in case you think this means allergies are a city thing, think again. The study, led by Dr. Ruchi Gupta, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a physician at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, also found that over 6 percent of children living in rural communities have food allergies.
The study, available online here and in the July 2012 issue of Clinical Pediatrics, is the first to map food allergies by zip code. It involved 38,465 children 18 and under, tracked by allergic occurrences in urban centers, metropolitan cities, urban outskirts, suburbs, small towns and rural areas.
The odds of having a food allergy were greater the farther south the children lived as well as in more densely populated areas, the researchers found. The states with the highest prevalence of food allergies in children were Nevada, Florida, Georgia, Alaska, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
Triggering allergens varied only slightly with geography. Milk and soy appeared to affect a similar proportion of allergic children throughout the nation. Except in rural areas, where milk allergy was more common, peanuts were the number 1 offender.
No matter where they lived, the children with food allergies were just as likely to have severe reactions. Nearly 40 percent of all the children in the study had a severe or life-threatening reaction.
"This is really important to note," Gupta told Food Safety News. "There may be less food allergies in rural areas, but if you do have a food allergy, you still have an equal chance of having a severe, potentially life-threatening reaction. If they had a mild reaction in the past, the next time the reaction could be more severe."
The study brings some interesting data to the table, but still doesn't answer the big question: Why have food allergies been on the rise for the past decade or so? Some researchers believe that urban pollutants may trigger the development of allergies while early exposure to rural bacteria may protect against developing sensitivities in the first place.
The best protection for children with food allergies might be education, and not just for those of us in the industry putting food on their plates. The Arizona Food Allergy Alliance has put together a summer camp program just for kids with severe allergies, the kids who have no business making bird feeders out of pine cones covered in peanut butter.
Two sessions of the half-day camps near Phoenix signed up more than 30 kids each. While activities are the same as at other summer camps, they're slightly different.
"All of our songs are about, 'I carry my EpiPen everywhere I go,' and 'I wash my hands and don't share food,'" Lisa Horne, director of the Arizona Food Allergy Alliance, told radio station KTAR.
The counselors are teens who have lived with a deadly food allergy, who can help the campers learn to cope with their condition.
Food service operators should be learning a lot more about preparing and serving meals safe for diners with food allergies. There are a few companies out there leading the path on this growing topic jump on board. No matter where you turn for education keep in mind this trend and special dining needs are rising so how can your restaurant cater to this growing client?