Food Allergies Are Not a Joke

Two years ago on our blog, we wrote about the portrayal of food allergies in the movies and television and expressed our concern for the lack of empathy and respect that is characteristic of so many portrayals.

The news media is not immune from this criticism. It’s clear that we still have a ways to go in terms of ensuring that the topic of food allergy is treated respectfully and is not taking lightly. Earlier this week on the TODAY Show, host Matt Lauer and weatherman Al Roker joked about nut allergies during a segment in which they were filmed sampling pistachios.

This would be insensitive at any time, but it’s particularly difficult to believe that it would occur during Food Allergy Awareness Week, a time in which the food allergy community has been working hard to educate others. It’s been incredibly inspiring to see landmarks, including the Empire State Building, lit in teal, and to hear the stories of individuals who are going into schools to share educational information about food allergies and anaphylaxis.

It’s now an opportune time to share excerpts from that March 2014 blog post – the message continues to ring true and we call upon journalists, writers, producers and others to do better. Food allergies are not a joke.

Some will say that the mere presence of food allergies and anaphylaxis in popular culture is a sign that the disease is gaining ground in the national consciousness. It is, and that is important. It’s also true that there are many different ways to broach a topic and bring attention to it, including using humor appropriately to educate and raise awareness.

But as a society, we can do better. And as a community, we can help by pointing people in the right direction.

In that spirit, for the producers and writers of movies and television shows who are interested in including food allergies in their story lines, I’d encourage you to keep the following in mind:

  1. Food allergies can be life-threatening. The most insidious fact about food allergy is that there is no way to know how severe a reaction will be until it happens – which means that every reaction has the potential to lead to a hospital visit, or worse. Today, without a cure or preventive treatments that can reduce the risk of life-threatening reactions, avoiding the food completely is critical (and much harder than it sounds). A person with a diagnosed food allergy should also be prepared for a severe reaction (anaphylaxis). That means having two epinephrine auto-injectors with them at all times, and knowing how and when to use them (for young children, it’s important for a responsible adult to carry and know how to use the auto-injector). When a severe reaction does occur, the person must be treated immediately with an epinephrine auto-injector and then 911 should be called to transport them to the hospital for further treatment and observation for at least four hours to ensure the symptoms don’t return.A recent episode of a network television sitcom depicted a character self-injecting epinephrine and then remaining at her desk while co-workers laughed about the incident – in the real world, this scene could have ended in tragedy. To treat it so lightly is irresponsible and could be dangerous. If you’re going to show a reaction, then show what it’s really like– not an unrealistic version that downplays the severity and potential consequences.
  2. 15 million people in the U.S. have food allergies. That’s enough people to be our fifth largest state. Since this is a common disease, it makes sense to incorporate characters with food allergies into your work. But it doesn’t make sense to play into a stale stereotype. Food allergy is an invisible disease that doesn’t discriminate based on race, geography, economic status or any other factor. It affects a diverse array of adults and children throughout the country, disproportionately affects African Americans, and is a reality for professional athletes, scientists, actors, musicians, and even those who live at the White House. When you determine which character will have a food allergy, it’s important to keep these facts in mind.
  3. Food allergy bullying is real and can have dire consequences. Movies and television have taken on the broad topic of bullying and explored the issue in meaningful and poignant ways. So what makes food allergy bullying different? A third of kids with food allergies have been bullied specifically because of them, and half of those kids didn’t tell their parents about it. Watching popular shows model ways in which to bully kids with food allergies is terrifying – for adults and children alike – and for what? A lame filler laugh? If exploring food allergy bullying is important to the story you are trying to tell, avoid showing exactly what happened and be sure to show the consequences the bully faced. Don’t make bullying look cool or even acceptable. You can learn more about this subject via FARE’s “It’s Not a Joke” campaignto address food allergy bullying.
  4. Approach this topic in the same way you would other life-threatening medical conditions. Humor can be excellent for softening difficult scenarios and supporting the healing process. And food allergy certainly isn’t the only disease that movies and television shows poke fun at. But when you’re writing a scene about food allergies, I’d ask you to consider this – would you make the same joke about cancer, or diabetes, or a heart attack? More often than not, the answer will be no. This isn’t about special treatment – it’s about being evaluated by the same standard.


FARE’s theme for Food Allergy Awareness Week this year is “React With Respect.” We encourage members of the media to take this theme to heart. We are addressing this matter directly with NBC News, requesting an on-air apology, and hope that NBC does the right thing.