Millions suffer from food allergies

Managing Grace’s severe food allergies is part of our family’s routine. When we plan air travel, we call the airline ahead of time to let them know she can’t be exposed to peanut products.  We work with her school and her summer camp to make sure the dining rooms are safe. And we always keep handy an emergency dose of epinephrine in case she is exposed to an allergen and goes into anaphylactic shock — something that has happened to her four times.

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There is no cure for food allergies, and there is no explanation for their increased prevalence in America. The number of kids with food allergies doubled between 1997 and 2002.  Roughly 90 percent of all food allergies result from eight common foods — including milk, eggs and wheat.

It’s a serious food safety issue, and a scary one for parents. A 2001 study of fatal food allergy-induced anaphylactic reactions found that more than half of them occurred in victims under the age of 18.

As parents, all we can do is remain vigilant and prepared, steering our kids away from their allergens and keeping that epi-pen at the ready if they are exposed. We can’t be with them every minute of every day, especially when they go off to school.

But there is something we can do as legislators to empower schools to act as more effective partners in combating food allergies.

In my home state of Connecticut, we established food allergy management guidelines, the first such guidelines in the nation. Seven other states have followed suit.

And schools like Washington Elementary in West Haven are following through — meeting with parents, organizing the lunchroom, taking extra precautions on field trips, and helping faculty be aware of the signs of anaphylactic shock and prepared to administer a life-saving injection of epinephrine.

But kids in the other 42 states deserve the same kind of safe environment.  And so I have worked with Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and colleagues on both sides of the aisle to introduce the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Management Act, a bill to create federal guidelines so that every child in America can go to a school that maintains an individual action plan for managing food allergies.

These voluntary guidelines, to be developed by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education, will be designed to help schools prevent students’ exposure to allergens, as well as be ready for a quick response in case of a potentially fatal anaphylactic reaction. The legislation also includes grants to help schools adopt and implement the guidelines.

We picked up 32 bipartisan co-sponsors in the Senate, and the bill was included in the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, a broader piece of food safety legislation that we discussed at a hearing in late October. For many families, including my own, there is no more important food safety issue than food allergies. And I will continue to work toward passage of this critical legislation to help alleviate one of the biggest worries faced by millions of parents.

Dodd is senior member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education Labor and Pensions and chairman of the Subcommittee on Children and Families.