An Adverse Reaction Anne Munoz-Furlong says her Food Allergy Network just wants to raise consciousness. But when the Virginia mother weighed in on the safety of peanuts, she found almost everyone allergic to rational debate

November 09, 1998|By ROBERT GUY MATTHEWS | ROBERT GUY MATTHEWS,SUN STAFF

First came a call from the Wall Street Journal last summer. Then the New York Times. Suddenly, Anne Munoz-Furlong, head of a little-known organization dedicated to food allergies, was being christened the authority on peanuts.

She was quoted in just about every newspaper story that followed. Television beckoned. There were guest spots on radio shows across the country. Invites on the lecture circuit picked up.

Everyone wanted to hear her views on the latest media hullabaloo: Why the ubiquitous and beloved peanut butter sandwich was now a deadly lunchtime snack for some.

Airlines had planned peanut-free rows on planes. Schools had banned all peanut products from the cafeteria. Parents fought to protect their severely allergic children from coming into contact with the peanut.

The peanut wars were on.

The media were in a frenzy, delighted that Mr. Peanut was on the ropes and Munoz-Furlong was jabbing him with a flurry of body shots. In a few weeks time, she became synonymous with peanut-bashing.

It's been a bruising, confusing whirl for Munoz-Furlong, as she enters her 15th minute of fame (the newspapers and television have gotten bored with peanuts and are moving on).

Having been both lauded and pilloried, she is wondering if her message was heard above the din of parent vs. parent, peanut industry vs. airline industry, school vs. school.

"I'm not entirely sure anyone was listening," says Munoz-Furlong as her doe-brown eyes float toward the ceiling of her Northern Virginia office. "There is so much emotion about this. People are threatened. They don't understand. They hear only what they want to hear."

Everyone involved, it seemed, took sides; few were willing to compromise.

On one side were parents fearful that their children could become fatally sickened by the peanut. They were unyielding and wanted peanuts banned.

On the other side were peanut-industry growers and shellers who were puzzled over what all the fuss was about. Peanuts are practically a staple food, they shot back. Now it was being vilified by overreacting parents.

In the middle was Munoz-Furlong. She wouldn't support banning peanuts outright. She preached tolerance and understanding.

Eventually, both sides turned on her. Some parents accused her of being in the pocket of the peanut industry. Some in the peanut industry painted her as a hysterical woman out to ruin their livelihoods.

"This is going to be a long, long process," she says with the weariness of a soldier on the night before yet another day's battle.

Not working from home

It wasn't supposed to turn out like this, says the 45-year-old wife and mother of two daughters.

Sitting in her sprawling, first-floor corporate office in the Washington suburb of Fairfax, Va., she is perfectly coiffed in a coral-colored suit. Her desk in impeccably neat and her mostly female staff is busy with the day's work.

She is in her second home, the offices of the Food Allergy Network, a nonprofit organization she founded in 1991 as a source for parents, doctors and schools who needed practical information about food allergies. She says the network has 19,000 members. There is a staff of 13.

"This is a business," she says defiantly. "I hate it when people hear that I'm a mother and think I'm working from my kitchen."

She zigzags from her office at one end of the corporate suite, past the secretaries, order-takers, accountant and product storage room to the meeting room at the other end and makes a sweeping gesture with her hand. "See, I'm not in my kitchen."

Her fervor catches her off guard, perhaps. She smiles and softens.

"But if that's the only way they can accept it " she says, her voice trailing off.

Still, it is a family-like setting here, and Munoz-Furlong is the queen mother. Pictures of children who have been helped by the Food Allergy Network line the walls of one hallway. She proudly points to the artwork by dozens of elementary-age schoolchildren who depict kids with food allergies.

"Children aren't the problem," she says. "The adults are. Children understand when other children have food allergies.

"Adults scare me."

Lately, Munoz-Furlong has been getting hate e-mail.

For a moment, she marvels at why adults would become so enraged over peanut allergies. But then she looks back to just a few years ago when her infant daughter, Mariel, was allergic to all dairy products.

It was a tough time for her young family.

Been there

"I've walked in the shoes of these people," says Munoz-Furlong.

There was nothing like the Food Allergy Network when she gave birth to Mariel, her second daughter. In 1984, at just 9 months, Mariel was diagnosed as being allergic to dairy products.

The news actually came as a relief to Munoz-Furlong, who, for those first nine months of Mariel's life, simply could not comfort her child. Mariel rarely slept, cried all the time and vomited constantly. She didn't take to breast-feeding.

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