Allergies prompt U.S. to consider limiting or banning peanuts on planes

By Associated Press
Saturday, June 12, 2010

Federal regulators are considering restrictions, or even a complete ban, on the serving of peanuts on commercial airline flights.

Advocates say the move would ease fears and potential harm to the estimated 1.8 million Americans who suffer from a peanut allergy. Peanut farmers and food packagers, however, say it would be overreaching and unfair to their legume.

"The peanut is such a great snack and such an American snack," said Martin Kanan, chief executive of King Nut, an Ohio company that packages the peanuts served by most U.S. airlines. "What's next? Is it banning peanuts in ballparks?"

The Transportation Department previously weighed imposing peanut-free zones on airliners in 1998. The agency retreated after getting a hostile response from Congress, which threatened to cut its budget.

Last week, the department gave notice that it is gathering feedback from allergy sufferers, medical experts, the food industry and the public on whether to ban or restrict in-flight peanuts.

Three options were suggested, along with other proposed consumer protections for air travelers: banning service of peanuts on all planes, prohibiting peanuts only when an allergic passenger requests it in advance, or requiring an undefined "peanut-free zone" flight when a passenger asks for one.

"We're just asking for comment on whether we should do any of these three things," said DOT spokesman Bill Mosely. "We may not do any of them."

Mosely said the department is responding to concerns from travelers who either suffer from a peanut allergy or have allergic children, "some of whom do not fly" because they're afraid of exposure.

A peanut allergy can cause life-threatening reactions in people ingesting even trace amounts. Just breathing peanut dust in the air can cause problems -- though usually minor ones -- such as itching, sneezing and coughing.

A few limited studies on airline passengers with the allergy found that a number of them reported symptoms while flying, but few were severe or life-threatening, said Scott Sicherer, a doctor who studies food allergies at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.

Several airlines, including Continental, United, US Airways and JetBlue, have voluntarily stopped serving packaged peanuts. Delta and Southwest hand out goobers as in-flight snacks. American Airlines doesn't serve packaged peanuts, but it does offer trail mix and other snacks that can contain peanut ingredients.

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