Progress or Backlash: The Dilemma of Allergy Advocacy

Once the end gets opened and and the packaging is folded back, these two products look nearly identical. Image credit: Kellie Travers-Stafford.

A food allergy mother announced the recent death of her daughter in a Facebook post on July 12, 2018. The fatal incident was caused by one bite of a Chips Ahoy! cookie. The girl had been visiting a nearby friend where she was offered a snack from a package that had already been opened, and the host had folded the end of the package to access the cookies on the plastic tray inside. That fold concealed the peanut warning, which left the visible part of the package virtually identical to another Chips Ahoy! product.

The manufacturer had complied with all legal requirements. The grieving mother posted without suggesting a lawsuit. Obviously her daughter had made a fatal mistake. Yet many people do open this product by folding back the package end. Is it reasonable to ask for a package redesign in a treat marketed to children?

The mother’s full statement is posted below. As of this writing it has more than 50,000 shares.

I contacted Mondelez International, Nabisco’s parent company, to explain the circumstances and ask whether they would consider a packaging redesign in light of the tragedy. Their response did not address the question. This was their staffer’s reply:

We take allergies very seriously and all of our products are clearly labeled on the information panel of the packaging for the major food allergens in the U.S. (milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans).
Across our Chips Ahoy! product portfolio, packaging color is indicative of product texture (i.e., Chewy, Chunky, Original) and is not indicative of the presence of allergens.
We always encourage consumers to read the packaging labeling when purchasing and consuming any of our products for information about product ingredients, including presence of allergens. (For added reference, the packaging for Chips Ahoy! made with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups prominently indicates, on both the front and side panels, the presence of peanut butter cups through both words and visuals.)

In fairness to Mondelez International, they did follow every law and their staff responded while queries came in at the end of the week. Yet I had hoped for a more satisfying response, perhaps a promise to relay this input about package design to the appropriate team for further review. The death of a customer ought to be significant enough to review policy level decisions, especially in a product whose target consumers are children.

The insinuation that cookie texture is more important than product safety looks ill-chosen to my eyes; it is not pleasant to contemplate how that appears to the parent of a child who has a peanut allergy. Nothing in the reply suggests change might be forthcoming, which sets the introductory assurance that allergies are important at odds with the substance of its message. Although an explanation that the company complied with the law is to be expected, it ought to be possible to do so while striking a balance where the loss of a young life amounts to something more than that’s-not-our-department technicality.

At the Chips Ahoy! Facebook page the conversation is a nest of frustration: parents referencing the tragedy and seeking improved safeguards, a staffer under orders to paste a prewritten reply, a boilerplate response tasked with emphasizing the firm’s legal compliance, and a backlash from other customers exasperated with the advocacy.

Full text of this exchange is posted below.

From the customer:

As the mother of a child anaphylactic to nuts, could you please PLEASE change the packaging color for cookies that contain nuts? Alexi Stanford died on June 25 2018 from 1 bite of a cookie. The package color was identical to the regular chips ahoy cookies without nuts.

Official Chips Ahoy! response:

Hi [name omitted]— We take allergies very seriously and all of our products are clearly labeled on the information panel of the packaging for the major food allergens in the U.S. (milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans).
Across our Chips Ahoy! product portfolio, packaging color is indicative of product texture (i.e.,Chewy, Chunky, Original) and is not indicative of the presence of allergens.
The packaging for Chips Ahoy! made with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups prominently indicates, on both the front and side panels, the presence of peanut butter cups through both words and visuals.
We always encourage consumers to read the packaging labeling when purchasing and consuming any of our products for information about product ingredients, including presence of allergens.

The next customer comment is similar:

Full text below.

Second customer:

Damn…a kid died last month because of mix up in cookie packaging. Even I almost threw the wrong cookie box one in the cart. Can you be more creative and change the packaging ? I was astonished to find a million dollar company unable to make it exciting to new changes. Teachers, parents, and caretakers everywhere can easily make mistakes with little ones. Please help us out.

Chips Ahoy! response:

Hi [name omitted] — We take allergies very seriously and all of our products are clearly labeled on…

Someone thinks this conversation goes too far:

Full text of the backlash below.

Backlash comment:

or you know, people with allergies/parents with allergic children could take responsibility for their own lives and actions instead of blaming the color of a package bc they were too distracted/lazy to read ingredients.

So this is the way the cookie crumbles?

Yesterday a Facebook user announced her daughter’s death from an allergen in a cookie. Image credit Rdsmith4 CC-SA 2.5.

Peanuts are the most widely recognized food allergy. I approach this situation with Chips Ahoy! from an unusual perspective because the main focus of this blog is the underserved segments of the food allergy community. Earlier this week I wrote about how compostable plastic straws pose risks to people with life threatening allergy to corn, a fact of which Starbucks headquarters was unaware when it announced its decision to switch to compostables. Corn-based PLA plastics are not heat stable, which means allergic reactions in affected people worsen when that type of plastic comes into contact with hot liquids — specifically coffee. Corn is well documented in the medical literature as a cause of anaphylactic reactions but it is not one of the eight most common allergens: as a result the FDA does not regulate disclosure of corn as an allergen. Even if it did, plastic straws are not technically food.

So I sympathize with the grieving mother — the loss of a child is devastating — and also sympathize with her request for packaging improvements. Better peanut allergy awareness would cause no objective harm to anyone else.

And yet there is this:

These people must be fun at funerals.

Transcribing these three comments, first:

Sorry for your loss but it literally says Reese’s and peanut butter on the packaging, a 15 year old should know how to read. It isn’t the company’s fault at all.

Next:

If your 15 YEAR OLD DAUGHTER can’t read a simple label after living with a peanut allergy for 15 YEARS then it becomes natural selection and not a problem on the company’s behalf. As someone with allergies I ALWAYS check the ingredients. Even if it is something that looks familiar. Sorry for your loss but you can’t blame the company for your daughter’s mistake.

Finally:

She was 15? Plenty old enough to check he ingredients, and to read the package and to know that’s not the same colour. Sorry for your loss either way.

Experience has shown that this type of feedback does not always come from trolls. Derailment usually begins with strawman fallacies — lecturing someone who has placed no blame that blame cannot be assigned — chiding someone who has not threatened to sue that a lawsuit would fail. This dilemma costs relationships with people who are by no means trolls, perhaps because of a fear that advocacy is a zero sum game. If the corn allergy community seeks warning labels for PLA plastics, does that cost the peanut allergy community? No advocacy is gentle enough, no awareness-raising mild enough, to someone whose tendentious reasoning approaches an insistence that accommodation for someone else’s problem is an existential wrong. People who take that route seldom state the opinion bluntly; instead the red herrings and the false equivalence fallacies accumulate until it becomes obvious that conversation is futile.

People harp on details, often encouraged by prejudicial media coverage. Two years ago a man named Simon-Pierre Canuel in Quebec City spent a week in a coma after a waiter erred on his order of steak tartare and served salmon tartare. The two dishes looked nearly identical in the dimly lit restaurant and the patron ate one bite before realizing that he had been served the wrong meal. His epinephrine injector had fallen out of his pocket onto the seat of the car on his way to the restaurant, a detail which prominent newspapers reported as if he had no epinephrine injector at all. As the news cycle proceeded an ex-lover contacted reporters to say that he had a history of filing frivolous lawsuits — a claim which reporters could have disproven by checking for court filings, but instead the falsehood got reported as fact across Canada. The backlash that followed forced the man who had suffered heart failure from a near-fatal allergic reaction to also close all his social media accounts.

Returning to the recent tragedy with a Chips Ahoy! cookie, a frequent criticism has been she was 15, not 5. In other words she was able to read. How significant is that age? In order to gauge people’s thoughts I conducted two informal polls, asking whether age 15 is mature enough for a full adult driver’s license. The question has rough comparability because a lapse in judgment when handling either a motor vehicle or a food allergy can result in injury or death. The people who responded had no idea I would be comparing their assessment of mid-teenage maturity across both driving privileges and allergy management. It came as no surprise that many argued against it, either referring to studies on adolescent brain development or recalling their own errors in judgment when they were teenage drivers. Everyone who gets a license can read a stop sign; it is a question of maturity to keep one’s eyes on the upcoming intersection when a bad passenger creates a distraction.

Advocacy within the food allergy community is a delicate matter because those who do it walk on metaphorical eggshells, or peanut shells, or corn husks, or salmon scales as the case may be — each of us looking over a shoulder with trepidation about what might start a backlash. Most of us who have potentially deadly food allergies or who are family to someone who does, read about a loss to our community with a shiver of recognition that could happen to me. It is a generous act to bring meaning to tragedy by striving to improve safety for other people. Yet all too often those who lack a generous nature themselves are unable to recognize worthy motives in others. My heart goes out to this grieving mother; may the Internet be kinder to her than it was to Mr. Canuel.