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Debating the role of peanuts on airline flights

The Department of Transportation this month rolled out a roster of new rules it was considering to impose on airlines. Highlights include more compensation for passengers bumped off flights, better disclosure of baggage fees and the right to cancel a reservation within 24 hours without a penalty.

So, what idea triggered the sharpest debate so far?

Peanuts. More specifically, whether the DOT should ban or restrict airlines from serving the snack to protect people with peanut allergies. The agency put the ideas on hold last week under pressure from members of Congress from peanut-growing states.

Advocates argue that a ban would protect the estimated 1.8 million Americans with peanut allergies from suffering dangerous reactions and relieve their fears of flying. Peanut farmers and processors counter that regulators are trying to fix a problem unsupported by scientific fact.

The DOT insists it just wants to explore ways to make air travel more available to people with severe allergies.

The agency gave three options: ban airline peanuts and peanut products on planes; require peanut-free flights when a passenger with an allergy requests it; or create peanut-free zones in the cabin for allergic travelers.

Interested parties also were invited to comment on how airlines should deal with passengers who bring peanuts and peanut products on board. The DOT got an earful on its public comment docket.

"For the millions of Americans with this life-threatening allergy, flying is considered hazardous," wrote Kelly Rudnicki of Wilmette, Ill., outside Chicago, the mother of a 7-year-old with a peanut allergy. "A food allergic reaction at 30,000 feet is vastly different than in a restaurant."

Opponents noted the allergy afflicts only 0.6 percent of the U.S. population.

"You are denying the rights of the vast majority of passengers," wrote Robert Hahn of Overland Park, Kan. "Denying a product that has near zero net carbohydrates is grossly unfair to diabetics … (whose population) dwarfs the number of flyers with peanut allergies."

Peanuts and tree nuts like cashews and almonds are the leading cause of fatal and near-fatal food allergy reactions.

Most deadly and almost deadly reactions come from people eating food made with peanuts, Dr. Anna Nowak-Wegrzyn at Mount Sinai School of Medicine's Jaffe Food Allergy Institute in New York told CNN. But breathing airborne peanut particles also can produce "a significant reaction," she said.

Only three studies have been published on allergic reactions to peanuts on planes, said Chris Weiss, vice president of advocacy and government relations for the Food Allergy Anaphylaxis Network.

All were based on reports by passengers. None reported fatal reactions on airplanes, he said. "There is evidence reactions occurred," Weiss said. "But no scientific study looked at the risk of a reaction to peanut dust or particles."

That's why the DOT backed off on considering peanut regulations last week.

A 2000 act that funds the DOT prohibits the agency from restricting airlines from serving the snack until Congress gets a study confirming passengers suffered severe allergic reactions from peanut dust.

His group would welcome the report, Weiss said. "It's an emotionally charged issue," he said. "I don't see it going away any time soon."

Debating the role of peanuts on airline flights 06/29/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 30, 2010 10:26am]

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