Peter Rabbit

Photo: Peter Rabbit (James Corden) in Columbia Pictures' PETER RABBIT | Sony Pictures

Beatrix Potter’s beloved vegetable-loving rabbit found new life in last weekend’s Peter Rabbit movie debut — and then the film’s studio, directors, and writers found themselves in hot water.

Just 24 hours after the release of the animated children’s film, food allergy advocacy groups around the world were demanding Sony Pictures apologize for a scene that some say made light of potentially deadly food allergies.

In the film, Tom McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson) has come to rural Windermere, England, from posh London to take over his great uncle’s garden.

The young Mr. McGregor soon finds himself battling the furry faction who live in a hollow beneath a tree, the same plotline many will recognize from generations of Peter Rabbit stories.

During one battle, in a plan Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden) calls “the endgame,” the rabbits plan to shoot blackberries at Mr. McGregor.

The farmer is allergic to blackberries, however, and the rabbits plan to use that medical condition to their advantage in order to get past him toward garden glory.

The rabbits fling blackberries at Mr. McGregor with slingshots and one lands squarely in his mouth. Soon, Mr. McGregor is clutching his throat and gasping for air.

He’s seen reaching for his epinephrine pen and is finally able to inject himself to stop the anaphylactic response. He tips over to the ground in exhaustion. The rabbits celebrate their victory.

That, say parent groups and allergy advocacy organizations, is an example of food allergy bullying.

By the morning after the film’s U.S. release, the Kids with Food Allergies Foundation, part of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, had published an open letter to Sony, criticizing the film’s portrayal of food allergies. The original post has more than 12,000 shares.

At the same time, #boycotpeterrabbit was bubbling up and soon trending on Twitter,

The outrage didn’t stop Eric Katzman, an account manager with a public relations firm in New York City, from taking his children to see Peter Rabbit on opening weekend, however.

One of his children, a 5-year-old daughter, has a peanut allergy. He chose to use the film as an education opportunity for her.

“I explained that this is a good learning lesson for those who know nothing about food allergies,” he told Healthline. “I explained that while what is being done in the movie is bullying, which she may face as she grows up, she needs to advocate for herself and stand up to the bullies in the right ways if it comes up in the future.”

For Kathlena Rails, the film was not as warmly welcomed.

“We don’t weaponize rare brain tumors or other medical conditions, so why was anaphylaxis deemed an appropriate punchline?” asked Rails, a chef and business owner who creates recipes that are free of gluten, dairy, eggs, nuts, soy, corn, and yeast.

“When we see food allergies portrayed in adult television, it’s usually a crime drama where a murder has occurred, which is what it is, when you knowingly attack someone with what they’re allergic to,” said Rails, who also has severe and life-threatening food allergies, and is the parent of children with food allergies. “In the adult shows, the police are called and it’s all very serious. In this case, it was one big joke, and that’s the real danger.”

By Monday, Sony had sent a statement to the New York Times, apologizing for the scene.

“Food allergies are a serious issue. Our film should not have made light of Peter Rabbit’s archnemesis, Mr. McGregor, being allergic to blackberries, even in a cartoonish, slapstick way. We sincerely regret not being more aware and sensitive to this issue, and we truly apologize,” the statement read.

The risks of food bullying

Nearly 6 million children in the United States have life-threatening allergies, according to the Allergy & Asthma Network.

That’s 1 in 13 children, or roughly two in every classroom.

Combined with adults, Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) estimates 15 million people in the United States have food allergies and intolerances.

More attention is paid to food allergies and sensitivities today than ever before. That is why some opponents of the film were surprised to see the medical issue approached in a manner that didn’t take into consideration the seriousness it has for many families.

“While some feel that this is PC gone wild, or that the film is completely fictional and has no bearing on real life, I would argue differently,” said Rails, who has to wear a full-face respirator medical device when she’s cooking and baking for other people, as well as when she leaves the house. “I would have people consider that although this is a fictional movie, it’s aimed at children who are quite impressionable. Most children know someone with allergies, some of which are life-threatening. To depict a scene like this in a movie may lead to some children acting on it.”

“Food allergy bullying can have serious, even life-threatening consequences,” Tonya Winders, president and chief executive officer of Allergy & Asthma Network, told Healthline. “Using food allergy bullying as a joke in a children’s film makes it seem that food allergies are not that serious.”

For Zac Chelini, a 24-year-old graduate student, who experienced food bullying as a child and adolescent, the example of food allergy bullying in Peter Rabbit is a painful reminder of experiences he faced as a child and younger adult.

“It makes me upset that children can see a film like this and laugh along at a scene of food allergy bullying. My major concern with [the] scene is that millions of school-aged children will witness the scene that chooses to bully someone with a food allergy, and validates that behavior,” Chelini told Healthline.

Chelini, who is currently finishing his master’s degree in business administration at the University of Nevada, was originally diagnosed with a mild peanut allergy at age 5, only to have it worsen over time. He was bullied for his allergies and hopes awareness can prevent other children from experiencing what he did.

“I was bullied mostly by adults, but in some instances, by peers. In the fifth grade, my new teacher (who was fully aware of my 504 plan) selected me as part of a science experiment involving peanut butter and even though I reminded her of my allergy, peanut butter was rubbed on my hands during the experiment,” Chelini said. “In the seventh grade, one student found out about my allergy and where my locker was, as well as my combination. He put peanut butter inside the locker, outside the locker, and on the back of the lock.”

Chelini’s stories aren’t isolated incidents.

Last year in England, 13-year-old Karanbir Cheema, a student in west London, died from a severe allergic response to cheese that had been “forced” on him, a story in The Guardian reported at the time. A fellow student was arrested after Cheema’s death.

“I wish more people understood how emotionally damaging the bullying can be over time,” Rails told Healthline. “This is a condition that most sufferers are born with, and it’s something they struggled with every day. As young people, we long to be accepted, and these kids already have a huge strike against them.”

Finding help

Experiences with food allergies and bullying may change as children grow older.

Supportive environments can go a long way to eliminating the risk of food allergy bullying, but children may not be fully immune to it at any point in their lives.

That’s where Chelini hopes his story, and others like it, can help instruct children and parents on how to respond to food bullying and help prevent it.

“The voice that matters the most is what your gut is telling you, and if it’s not good, listen,” Chelini said. “Being able to find your voice in all the noise will provide you a foundation that will help you navigate a complex world that might not yet understand you.”

Chelini is part of the No Appetite for Bullying campaign, a multiyear anti-food allergy bullying initiative launched by kaléo along with the Allergy & Asthma Network (AAN), Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team (FAACT), Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), and Kids with Food Allergies (KFA).

The collaboration wants to educate and convey the seriousness of food allergies to communities who have not experienced them firsthand.

Rails also emphasizes the importance of helping your children find a community of support.

“Organizations like FAACT and FARE offer support, as well as summer camps designed for kids with food allergies. It’s critical that kids have friends that can totally relate to them and understand the struggles they endure. In some cases, parents may need to seek counseling for their children.”

“Food allergy needs to be recognized as a life-threatening illness. There is concern that we may be minimizing the seriousness of the disease state,” Dr. Tania Elliott, an allergist in New York City and a guest co-host on The Doctors, told Healthline. “It is tremendously important that we increase food allergy awareness and move away from any stigma that people with allergies are weak, or odd, or wimpy, or outsiders.”

“It truly can be a matter of life and death,” Elliott added.