NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- This past June, Joyce Davis, along with her husband and two kids, planned an outing to Wrigley Field to see their hometown favorite, the Cubs. As always, they toted along a special emergency kit for 10-year old Julia, who's grappled with a severe peanut allergy since she was a toddler.
"Like any other game, we were prepared; we wiped down the seats just to be sure, but that day everyone around us was eating them," said Ms. Davis, recalling the nervousness she felt for her child. "There were peanut shells flying everywhere, and those particles must have gotten in the air." It was barely 15 minutes into the game before Julia starting getting itchy and broke out in hives. If they stuck around, she could have gone into anaphylactic shock, Ms. Davis said, but "she didn't want to leave; it was Father's Day, and [she] was sad [her allergy] was wrecking our whole outing, but we said no, your safety comes first."
To perk up little Julia, mom and daughter started a Facebook page called "Chicago Cubs Fans for Peanut Free Baseball." It built up a small but fervent fan-base, which quickly grabbed the team's attention. Within weeks, Wrigley Field announced its first-ever game with a "peanut-safe zone" -- a skybox equipped with medicine, non-allergen snacks and a nurse on hand.
It wasn't just a feel-good moment; Wrigley Stadium benefitted, with a waiting list of more than a hundred families willing to pay as much as $50 a pop for peanut-free-zone tickets. Said Ms. Davis: "Strictly from a business perspective, it makes so much sense because you have people willing to pay more to be 100% sure."
Catering to customers with food allergies or intolerances such as celiac disease is something a range of businesses -- including restaurant chains, packaged-food marketers and airlines -- increasingly need to consider as part of their marketing strategies. According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 4% of the U.S. population, or 12 million Americans, currently has food allergies or intolerances, the majority of them children. And it's a population that's growing fast. In the past decade, its numbers have jumped 18%.
"It's tough to argue that food allergy is not increasing," said Chris Weiss, VP-advocacy and government relations for nonprofit organization Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. "There's no clear-cut consensus as to why, but there are a couple of theories floating around, the most predominant being the hygiene hypothesis." He explained that, under this theory, "our environment has become more sterilized, and our immune systems are somehow adapting to a cleaner environment, and part of that includes adversely reacting to certain food proteins we didn't 20 or 30 years ago."
The bad news? There is no cure for food allergies. The good news is "we're definitely seeing more supermarkets, food companies and restaurants catering to food allergies and food intolerances," Mr. Weiss said.
Packaged-foods companies such as General Mills, perhaps driven by reports such as a recent one by Datamonitor that states the global gluten-free market will reach $4.3 billion over the next five years, are expanding gluten-free lines on brands like Bisquick and Hamburger Helper. Anheuser-Busch even has a gluten-free beer called RedBridge.
Last month, Darden Restaurants announced that its Red Lobster restaurants will nationally roll out an allergy menu that charts dishes made using the eight major allergens: soy, milk, fish, shellfish, eggs, wheat, peanuts and tree nuts. P.F. Chang's, one of the earliest to the trend, recently expanded its gluten-free menu -- a common topic of conversation among its more than 100,000 Facebook fans. And other casual dining chains, such as Outback Steakhouse and Chili's, are posting allergen information on their websites.
On the flip side, restaurants that aren't taking food-allergy precautions are being called out on websites such as Allerdine.com, where customers grade restaurants on the basis of "an allergy-friendly kitchen layout" and their willingness to prepare a custom meal. Tech tools are cropping up too, like iPhone app iCanEatOntheGo, which allows users to tailor the app to their specific conditions and then see which quick-service restaurants are safe, and Foodcontentalerts, a website created by ad agency Taxi.
"Restaurants have come a long way over the past decade," said FAAN's Mr. Weiss. But, "ideally, restaurant staff would understand that food allergy is something to be taken seriously ... and if they are not confident they can serve a safe meal, then they shouldn't take any risk." To ease the process, FAAN is putting the finishing touches on a 20-minute training DVD featuring celebrity chef and star of the Food Network's "Next Iron Chef" Ming Tsai.
Mr. Tsai has become one of the most-visible advocates for people with food allergies and intolerances, a cause he's passionate about since his son grew up with seven out of eight of the most common food allergies. "Training is paramount," Mr. Tsai told Ad Age. "The biggest error in any kitchen -- manufacturer or restaurant -- is contamination."
"When you go to a restaurant and your kid can die, you're very apprehensive. You want to ease the tension parents are having," he said. "It costs a little bit in terms of time to train staff, but at the end of the day, if you're smart about it, you'll do more business. ... And if you do it well, you're going to help your bottom line."
Another reason why it's probably a good idea to get up to speed sooner than later: It might eventually wind up being required by federal law. Earlier this year, Mr. Tsai wrote and successfully lobbied for the passage of a bill in Massachusetts that mandates standard food-service courses to include the viewing of an approved food-allergy video, and requires the state's Department of Public Health to develop a program for restaurants to be designated as "Food Allergy Friendly" and to maintain a listing of restaurants receiving such a designation on its website.
Still, for now, some companies are sticking to their guns. While airlines such as American, Continental and United have switched to pretzels, Delta, Alaska Airlines -- and, of course, Southwest -- continue to serve peanuts.
"This is something that's not going away, and if you don't adjust to this new demand for allergen-friendly food, you're going to miss the boat," said Mr. Tsai. But, if you make the effort now, "you can build the most loyal customer base in the world."
These statistics underscore why marketers in a range of categories -- from packaged goods to restaurants to airlines -- are thinking about how to serve a growing population of Americans grappling with food allergies and intolerances.
- Many adults have some degree of lactose intolerance by age 20 (approximately 30 million Americans).
- More than 12 million Americans have food allergies. That's one in 25, or 4% of the population, and it's growing.
- From 1997 to 2007, the prevalence of reported food allergy increased 18% among children under age 18 years.
- Food allergy is more common among children than adults. Ninety percent of all food-allergy reactions are cause by eight foods: milk, soy, eggs, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.
- One in 133 people report having celiac disease.
- One out of every 25 children has a food allergy, representing about a 20% increase between 1997 and 2007.
- Hospitalizations of children due to food-allergy reactions in the U.S. have significantly increased since 1998, with an average of 9,537 hospitalizations a year.
- Children under age five have higher reported rates of allergy than those between five and 17.
- Nearly 30% of children with food allergies also report respiratory allergies, compared to 9% of kids with no food allergy.
- Peanut allergy doubled in children in a five-year period between 1997 and 2002.