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Soc Sci Med. 2013 Aug;90:49-55. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2013.04.031. Epub 2013 May 6.

Parsing the peanut panic: the social life of a contested food allergy epidemic.

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Princeton University, Office of Population Research, 228 Wallace Hall, Princeton, NJ 08544, USA.


As medical reports over the last decade indicate that food allergies among children are on the rise, peanut allergies in particular have become a topic of intense social debate. While peanut allergies are potentially fatal, they affect very few children at the population level. Yet, peanut allergies are characterized in medical and popular literature as a rising "epidemic," and myriad and broad-based social responses have emerged to address peanut allergy risk in public spaces. This analysis compares medical literature to other textual sources, including media reports, legislation, and advocacy between 1980 and 2010 in order to examine how peanut allergies transformed from a rare medical malady into a contemporary public health problem. I argue that the peanut allergy epidemic was co-constructed through interactions between experts, publics, biomedical categories, and institutions, while social reactions to the putative epidemic expanded the sphere of surveillance and awareness of peanut allergy risk. The characterization of the peanut allergy problem as an epidemic was shaped by mobility across social sites, with both discursive and material effects.

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