I Understand, but I Miss the Once-Innocent Peanut Butter Sandwich

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No allergies: Roxana Brown eats a snack of peanut butter, celery and raisins

My coworker is allergic to almonds. And I mean really allergic. If she's at a dinner party and a salad is served with a sprinkling of slivered almonds, she can't just pick the nuts off the lettuce and go about eating the salad. The greens have come in contact with the almonds — and that contact, however brief, is enough to set off a terrifying reaction: Her hands start itching and her throat closes up. And if she doesn't get help fast, she can stop breathing. It happens more often than most of us realize; about 30,000 people are rushed to the emergency room each year for food allergies, and some 200 die from food-related allergic reactions each year.

Happily, my friend is vigilant. When she goes out to eat, she grills waiters about recipes and ingredients. She carries a penlike syringe of super-strength antihistamine, which she is prepared to plunge into her thigh in the case of accidental almond consumption. And, of course, she reads food labels.

Unfortunately, according to a new survey by the Food and Drug Administration, all that caution may be for naught. Despite strict labeling laws designed to protect people like my coworker from any unpleasant surprises in their food, the FDA found that as many as 25 percent of manufacturers don't accurately list ingredients in foods like cookies, candy bars and other snacks. The omitted foods include oft-cited allergens like raw nuts and eggs, and the lapse, FDA officials fear, could result in myriad, avoidable allergic reactions — even death.

Still, as devastating as the effects of an errant allergen may be, it pains me to realize that if I were going to school now, instead of 20 years ago, my childhood lunchtime memories would have been hugely altered. For 13 years, I carried a brown bag to school, which always contained my beloved peanut-butter-and-honey sandwich. Day in and day out, I ate my peanut butter. And I enjoyed it every single day. And nobody bothered to tell me I was consuming the edible equivalent of an anthrax bomb.

These days, kids at some hyper-observant schools aren't allowed to bring anything to school that's been within five feet of a peanut because everyone is so paranoid about peanut allergies. And those of us stupid enough to board an airplane in anything resembling a hungry state are denied the solid food value of dry roasted peanuts in favor of the wimpy carbohydrates in pretzels.

Don't get me wrong: I certainly don't doubt the severity of an allergic reaction to a wayward nut. I do, however, have to question why, although I never saw a single kid have a reaction to my thousands and thousands of supposedly deadly sandwiches, some kids are now denied the simple and nutritionally important ritual that is a peanut butter sandwich. Isn't there a more reasonable way to approach peanut allergies? Just wondering.