Northwest's snack switch to peanuts prompts allergy worries

  • Article by: SUZANNE ZIEGLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 13, 2009 - 5:20 AM

In wake of acquisition by Delta, Northwest is once again handing out bags of peanuts to passengers.

After years of handing out pretzels to passengers, Northwest Airlines is going back to peanuts.

While the return to peanuts will likely be nostalgic for some travelers, families of children with peanut allergies are upset, to the point of canceling a trip on Northwest and vowing to fly only on airlines that don't serve peanuts.

Margaret Gildner of St. Louis Park, whose 1-year-old son and 7-year-old niece are allergic to peanuts, said she and others are disheartened by the Feb. 1 policy change.

"There's no more flights on Northwest for us or any of our family members," said Gildner, who in November booked a March trip to Florida on Northwest. With the peanut change, she's cancelled that flight and rebooked on Sun Country, which doesn't serve peanuts.

The change comes four months after Northwest was acquired by Delta, which is based in Georgia, where peanuts are a huge cash crop. And Delta isn't shy about admitting support for home-state farmers is one reason for the change.

"Delta is an Atlanta company, and Georgia is an important producer of peanut products, therefore their policy supports their home state," the company said in a letter to Gildner's mom, Betsy Parish of Wayzata. Parish wrote to Delta last week to complain about the change.

Delta spokesman Anthony Black said the change is one of several being made as Northwest and Delta "harmonize" in the wake of the acquisition.

Delta has served peanuts on board its planes for years, he said, and handed out 60 million packages of them last year alone. "It's a popular item that we have had on our planes for a long time," he said.

"Through the process of merging the airlines, Delta's snacks are the snacks that will be carried on board Northwest flights," he said. Other snacks, cheese crackers and a biscotti cookie also are available, he said.

Airlines went peanut-free

Peanuts were a staple snack for air travelers until 1998 when the Department of Transportation recommended that large air carriers create a buffer zone around passengers with the peanut allergies. Many airlines decided to go completely peanut-free and switch to an alternate.

Among the airlines that don't provide packaged peanuts are Air Canada, Air Tran, American, Continental, Jet Blue, Midwest, Sun Country, United and US Airways. If alerted that someone with a peanut allergy is on board, Southwest will not serve peanuts on that flight.

Peanut allergies are the most common life-threatening food allergy in children. About 1.5 million people in the United States have peanut allergies and the majority of the fatal reactions occur in teenagers, according to Anne Muñoz-Furlong, founder of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, a food-allergy advocacy group in Fairfax, Va. About 150 people die each year from food allergies -- about half of them from reactions to peanuts, she said.

"A reaction on a plane is very unique because they are stuck there and cannot get themselves out of that situation. You are at 30,000 feet and cannot get help."

Tips from Northwest

Northwest's website acknowledges that peanuts can "result in dire even fatal consequences for customers with the most severe allergies" and says it cannot guarantee an environment that is free of peanuts or their dust, oil or remnants.

It recommends people with the allergy let them know so flight attendants will not serve peanuts to people in the same row or three rows in front and behind the passenger. It also provides tips, including taking the first flight of the day when possible because planes get a more thorough cleaning overnight and bringing epinephrine -- often the EpiPen brand -- which can help treat someone going into anaphylactic shock.

That's not enough for Gildner. She wants it known that simply breathing in peanut dust can trigger an allergic reaction and that the number of people with peanut allergies is growing.

"We are simply against having peanuts in a closed environment, in the air, creating excessive risk for our child or any peanut allergic child who is far away from medical care," she said. "We are not talking about the absence of a snack item, only the change in the snack item."

Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707 For more information about food allergies, go to www.foodallergy.org

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