WASHINGTON -- Congress may have halted attempts to establish peanut-free zones on some airline flights last week, but many fear the debate over peanuts may not be over.
"Some of this is about political correctness. It's almost like this hysteria has grown up over mostly anecdotal evidence," said Gene Grabowski, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association of America.
"Where does it stop? Today it may be one product. Tomorrow it may be another. Just about every food you name out there, someone is allergic to."
Congress rejected a Transportation Department directive that would have required airlines to set aside at least three rows where no peanuts can be served whenever they have a request in advance from a passenger with a medically documented peanut allergy.
Instead, lawmakers included a provision in the federal spending bill that requires the department to send Congress "a peer-reviewed scientific study" documenting severe allergic reactions before moving again to restrict peanuts on planes.
Even after the congressional action, peanut problems persist.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who hails from Georgia -- where peanuts are an official state crop -- accused the Clinton administration Friday of being "anti-peanut."
The administration "wanted to give away free needles to heroin addicts. On the other hand they wanted to create peanut-free zones in airplanes," Gingrich said at a fund-raising appearance in Albany, Ga., the heart of peanut country.
"I am proud to say ... we have stopped the Clinton administration from being anti-peanut," Gingrich said.
Several schools, including some in the New York area, already have banned peanuts outright or set up peanut-free cafeteria zones.
Bob Redding, a Washington lobbyist for the Georgia Peanut Commission, said the controversy surprised the industry.
"Why would you just choose peanuts? I don't see that it has any higher amount of food problems or allergies that some other entities," Redding said.
The Fairfax, Va.-based Food Allergy Network estimates that 5 million Americans suffer food allergies, with peanuts, wheat and milk generating the most reactions.
Peanut industry leaders say they are supporting research aimed at developing vaccines against peanut allergies and sponsoring studies in hopes of developing allergy-free peanuts.
Mitch Head, executive director of the Atlanta-based Peanut Advisory Board, which promotes peanuts grown in Georgia, Florida and Alabama, said his organization has fielded some calls from school administrators and nurses asking about peanuts.
"Our concern is that research says that 33 percent of Americans think they have a food allergy to something," Head said. He contends that fewer than 5 percent of the public actually is allergic.
"I think you are going to have people saying `I might be allergic to peanuts' when of course they really aren't," Head said.
Nevertheless, Head said the industry so far has noticed no drop in sales or consumption.
"Actually we've had a lot of overwhelming support from consumers," he said. "This little bag of peanuts (on airlines) that nobody thought anybody cared about, ... when people tried to take it away, everybody got upset."
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