WASHINGTON — Farmers, scientists, politicians and lobbyists in Georgia, where roughly half the nation's peanuts are produced, are scrambling to do an image makeover of sorts on the politically embattled legume.
A number of schools across the country have banned peanuts and their creamy byproduct, peanut butter, and others have created "nut-free zones" in an effort to protect children with potentially life-threatening allergies. Just over 2 million school-aged children have food allergies, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, a nonprofit advocacy group for allergy sufferers.
Some farmers, worried about the stigma, have undertaken peanut mission trips to Haiti and sub-Saharan African countries, where nut allergies are far less prevalent, to promote the food's nutritional value for malnourished children. Scientists at the University of Georgia are scurrying to create a hypoallergenic peanut, and the peanut industry is ramping up lobbying efforts in anticipation of the upcoming farm bill reauthorization to ensure that farmers still get a chunk of federal funding.
"When you're dealing with something that is so emotional you gotta deal with it carefully," said Don Koehler, the executive director of the Georgia Peanut Commission, an industry group. He and his colleagues work with the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network's programs and visit classrooms three or four times a year to discuss allergies.
"In all my travels I've never heard anybody say they want to hurt people with what we feed people," he said.
The Kirkland family of Atlanta knows all too well the perils of life in a state where peanuts reign supreme. Six-year-old Cody's peanut allergy is so severe that even trace amounts of peanut dust leave him covered in hives and gasping for air.
So he's never been too a baseball game: too many peanut shells left in the stands. He rarely has birthday cake at friends' parties. Many cakes contain some form of peanut-based products. The parents in his kindergarten classroom elected to go peanut-free to help keep Cody safe.
"I personally love peanuts and love peanut butter, so I don't want to take out of folks' diet something that is a great source of protein for people," said his mom, Eileen Kirkland. "I want people to understand he has a medical condition. He's not picky or weird. A little bit of peanut butter will kill him."
Part of the reason behind the peanut backlash is the severity of peanut and tree nut allergic reactions, said Brian Vickery, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Duke University Medical Center.
Allergies are on the rise overall in Western countries, and the reasons are varied, complicated and not that well understood, Vickery said. Increased allergy awareness and diagnosis could contribute to this increase, as well as heredity and low vitamin D levels. Western society's aversion to feeding young children and infants allergenic foods and a hyper emphasis on cleanliness also may be factors.
Scientists do know that the major allergens in peanuts are seed storage proteins, and the amount of allergens can be manipulated by reducing those proteins, said Peggy Ozias-Akins, a professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia-Tifton.
"A reduced-allergen peanut has been produced but not commercially, because it would be expensive to regulate since it is genetically modified," she said. This modification also complicates doing federally approved allergy testing in humans, she said.
Still, scientists at the University of Georgia have learned how to eliminate two of the most serious allergens and still maintain a viable peanut. They're not sure whether people would like the peanuts' taste, since the scientists would need approval to run those types of broader taste tests.
There also are approaches to eliminating allergens in peanuts by mutating their genetic code, called DNA, to disrupt the function of the allergen-causing genes in peanuts. But breeding this new type of cultivated peanut could take anywhere from six to 12 years, Ozias-Akins said.
One thing many scientists, peanut industry advocates and leading allergy-support groups agree on: Outright bans don't work.
"The concept of banning a food item has a lot of other unintended food consequences that may or may not be in the best interest of other students," Vickery said. "It becomes very difficult to draw lines of what is acceptable and not acceptable. How do you decide nuts are not OK but milk is OK?"
Rather than promote bans, the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network contributed a section to a Food and Drug Administration measure offering voluntary guidelines to schools on how to deal with kids with food allergies.
Peanut proponents also are sensitive to such health issues, and, as a result, find themselves walking a delicate line when talking about Georgia's $2 billion industry.
Peanuts are big business in the state. For an industry that also is grappling with a drought that severely affected crops and with possible subsidy cuts once negotiations on the farm bill get under way, broader bans could cut into profits.
That's why Georgia lawmakers — most of whom display their peanut pride in snack bowls carefully placed around their congressional offices — pressed the U.S. Department of Transportation to back down from a proposed peanut ban on commercial aircraft last year. The DOT acknowledged that it had acted in violation of a 2000 congressional funding act that prohibited a ban on peanuts on commercial aircraft unless the agency completed a peer-reviewed scientific study of the impact of such a ban.
The peanut industry has spent just over $500,000 this year alone lobbying lawmakers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration in anticipation of the farm bill's reauthorization on such issues as processing, education and safety.
It's the height of harvesting season at Chase Farms, a 1,600-acre parcel in Oglethorpe, Ga., a town roughly an hour outside Columbus. Don Chase works alongside his elderly parents as they meticulously comb the rows for peanuts. He shouts to be heard over the whir of the combine.
"In some parts of the country I'm concerned about what's going on," said Chase, who once traveled to Haiti with fellow peanut farmers to feed protein-enriched peanut-based meals to hungry children. "It's easier for decision makers to ban something rather than take an approach to take a look at it closely."
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