Here’s what seems to have happened:
1. In the normal course of things, some children developed severe peanut allergies.
2. Awareness of this problem grew. It’s not clear whether the actual incidents grew or not, but almost certainly not. It was probably more a matter of growing access to information.
3. Parents became more and more leery about feeding their babies or young children peanuts.
4. Peanut allergies did become more common.
5. Restrictions about peanuts became more and more draconian, with “peanut-free zones” being established in many preschools.
6. Various theories about why these allergies were exploding were advanced, with the most common one being that levels of aflatoxin, a toxin that can grow in various grains and legumes, had increased in peanut products. This theory is almost certainly not true; levels of the substance are monitored in the US, and the low levels allowed in various products have not been shown to be harmful. There have been instances of aflatoxin reactions in other countries, notably Kenya, where there can be problems with the proper storage of these products. But peanut allergies are very rare there. In fact, I read a story somewhere or other about Americans visiting an African country and explaining that their children could not eat peanuts, a statement that produced incredulous laughter from their African hosts. They were probably saying, as I say often when confronted with something outrageous, “Wh-a-a-a-t?”
7. Soon the avoidance of peanuts was recommended by various health and wellness gurus not only for children but also for everyone.
8. Evidence has now been presented by the National Institutes of Health that we’re handling the problem exactly backwards: by keeping babies off of peanuts, we are increasing the odds that they will develop the allergy. In the words of David Stukus, a pediatric allergist who coauthored the new guidelines,. When “we introduce peanut-containing foods early, the immune system can get used to it.” (quoted in Jonah Goldberg’s G-File last Friday.) This window of opportunity for early introduction is pretty small. If you miss it, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your child will experience peanut allergies, but he hasn’t been “inoculated” against them.
Ain’t that just the way it is? This whole imbroglio is a perfect example of how we humans tend create the very problem that we’re trying to solve. Overreaction to the problem, not the problem itself, is what causes the problem.