AllergyKids Founder Seeks to Protect Children from Harmful Foods
If someone asked you to define a pivotal experience that changed the course of your life, would you have to think long and hard before answering? For Robyn O’Brien, the event is as vivid as when it occurred more than three years ago. O’Brien is the founder of AllergyKids, an organization dedicated to protecting children with allergies from being harmed by the very foods they eat. She is also the author of The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It, which was released for sale by Random House today.
Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) visited with O’Brien by phone from her home in Colorado. She began the interview by describing the morning that changed her life. What follows is Part 1 of a two-part interview.
BPGL: Your new book, The Unhealthy Truth, tells about the overwhelming numbers of children who have developed food allergies. What prompted your interest in this topic?
O’BRIEN: In January of 2006, I was a mother of four. My youngest was almost a year old. I was just like any mom, scrambling around, tight budget, picky eaters, slinging breakfast across the kitchen table. I wasn’t a foodie, so the breakfast that morning was blue yogurt, Eggo waffles, and scrambled eggs. I thought, This is a balanced meal. It’s got dairy. It’s got calcium. It’s got the eggs for the protein. That’s about as “Martha” as I got.
I had made scrambled eggs for the older kids. And, you know how in the pediatrician’s office they always say, ‘Introduce solid foods one at a time to watch for an allergic reaction?’ We didn’t have a family history of food allergies, so I thought, Fortunately, that’s one of those issues I don’t have to worry about. And so, food allergies never crossed my mind with my older children.
I was slinging the food out, and I threw some on my youngest’s highchair tray just to see. She pushed it away, and didn’t want it. I didn’t care. She was eating her banana and that was fine. Then she started to get fussy. As the morning wore on, she was really fussy, so I figured she must be tired. It was around 9 o’clock, and I put her down for a nap.
In all “mother-of-fourness,” I never really checked on my fourth child when she was napping. She was happy, and I knew she was fine. I didn’t worry about her. And, for whatever reason — I do not know why — that morning, I went and checked on her. I got into her room, and her face was so swollen, and so red. I looked at her, and thought, Oh my god, what has happened to this child?
And still, in complete oblivion to food allergies, I turned to my older three kids and said, “Did you guys put something in Tory’s face?” They all just looked at me with those blank, little-kid stares, and I thought, Oh, my gosh. They have no idea what I’m talking about. What has just happened to this child? I had no idea.
So I called the pediatrician’s office — it was a Saturday morning — and they said, ‘This sounds like an allergic reaction.’ My husband took the older three, and I raced Tory in there. The pediatrician said, ‘Yes, Robyn, this is an allergic reaction. What did you feed her for breakfast?’
I said, “This is what was out.”
And she said, “Oh, wheat, dairy, eggs, those are some of the top allergens.”
I said, “What are you talking about?” And it started this massive learning curve. So I came home that day, and I thought, Oh, my gosh, since when did food get so toxic?
BPGL: That was obviously a terrifying experience for all of you. How did you move from fear to action?
O’BRIEN: I kept asking, “How does my child have this problem?” My background is financial research. I am a complete research wonk. I think it’s fascinating. It’s absolutely my passion to research stuff. So I started looking into the numbers, and I realized, “This is a huge problem!” At that point, the statistics that were being recorded were 1 out of 17 children under the age of three [had food allergies]. At the time, I thought, That is a huge number. What is going on?
Over that weekend, I started educating myself. Literally, within a couple of days, I was wondering, How am I going to protect this kid in my house? The older three can’t read yet. An egg is safe for them, but not for her. And eggs are in cupcakes… They’re in anything.
It was that panic, urgent, desperation that a mother has to protect her child. So I sat down. I started sketching out something that I could slap on things around the kitchen that my older three would be able to decipher. And I started sketching out a symbol that even young children could recognize as a warning. I kept simplifying it down, and then when I came up with this symbol, I tried it on my kids, and they totally got it. It was really obvious to a three-, four-, and five-year-old.
BPGL: Your children now had a warning symbol to protect Tory. What made you decide to go beyond your own family’s safety and build a business?
O’BRIEN: I talked to a couple friends, who said, “That is such a good idea!” I thought, it’s kind of the “pink-ribbon” of food allergies. So with that, and my business and finance background, I thought, I’ll just start a little business. I can design products that have this symbol on it, and maybe moms will be able to use it. I can raise some money for research. It’s a win-win. It lets me put my brain to use. I was just thrilled to also be in a position to where I could do something to help protect my child.
That was the launch of AllergyKids. That weekend I went sleuthing through our secretary of state’s database so I could find a name and correspond it with a website that was catchy. I did a lot of homework on that front. I started pulling it together. My sister-in-law does product development in Seattle. So I called her, and she helped me get some products. I thought, I can pull this together in a couple months — it’s such a simple concept — and launch it on Mother’s Day 2006. So that’s what we did.
BPGL: What was the response from the public?
O’BRIEN: It launched on Mother’s Day, and it was just an instant, “Oh, my gosh! Why hasn’t someone done this before?” The press loved it! It was awesome to be in a position to say, “Here’s something that can help moms. And it was a way for us to raise money to give to these nonprofits that are doing research. I felt really good about it. The kids got it. That was my testing ground, these little children.
And then as I started getting more and more attention, I started getting the attention of some of these nonprofits in a really weird way. They would send these emails almost to say, “Please leave the press to us.” I didn’t really understand why.
BPGL: That’s an odd reaction. I’d think everyone would be pleased to see the effect you were having. It obviously didn’t stop you.
O’BRIEN: I kept reaching out. Mothers around the country were so excited. And they were so excited by the press that food allergies were getting and the awareness that I was bringing to it. There was this desperation on so many mothers’ part, to really say, “We’re not making this up. And as crazy as it sounds that a kid could be allergic to food, our kids are allergic to food!”
So they were really grateful and trying to raise money for Awareness Walks in their cities. We were strapped out on debt to launch the company, and they were asking if I could donate money. And I said, “I don’t have any money to donate, but I can donate products, and you can sell them and do whatever you need to with the money to raise the awareness. They loved that.
And all of a sudden, a particular nonprofit food allergies group came back again and said, “We will not accept anything with AllergyKids on it.” And again, I asked, “Why?”
‘Then they started to get pretty aggressive. They sent this letter from their law firm. It claimed that my tag line, “Until there’s a cure, there’s Allergy Kids,” was a copyright infringement from a line that they had in their 2004 annual report, “Until there’s a cure for food allergies, education is key.”
BPGL: What was your response?
O’BRIEN: I’d done a ton of business, finance, equity stuff. So, When I got that letter, I looked at it and I said, “This is hilarious.” Not only, when I went on the website for the law firm listed on the letterhead, there was no website, but the lawyer’s email address was listed as aol.com or something like that, not at a law firm!
BPGL: That’s amazing. Sounds like blatant intimidation tactics.
O’BRIEN: So then, they were claiming that I had copied their tag line. What they had failed to realize, which they couldn’t have realized, is that I had gotten approval for that tag line through the US Patent and Trademark Office. So had there been any copyright and trademark infringement, they wouldn’t have passed the trademark. I showed the letter and a few emails that the had non profit sent out to my attorney, and I said, “This is seems a bit ridiculous. Is this meant to intimidate me?”
He said, “This is defamation.” I showed him all the emails that had come through, and in typical legal fashion, he was a bulldog and wanted to just go after it. I said, “No. I need to understand why they are so threatened by me.”
He couldn’t believe the letter. He fired back — he didn’t even charge me for his response and his time — he fired back and said, “Not only has Robyn been granted the patent by the US Patent and Trademark Office to use this trademark, but in a database search by the US Patent and Trademark Office, the clause, ‘Until there’s a cure’ is used by 27,153 organizations. Why are you targeting her?” It was just hilarious. And that’s when my story turned.
That was August 1, 2006 when I got that letter. All of a sudden, I stepped back, and I saw it. Why are these guys trying to get me out of here? Why have they been so dismissive? They were threatened by something, and I couldn’t figure out what. That’s when I started pulling their financial statements to see who funded them, to see if there might be a reason they were trying to run mothers out, or if they had done it to other mothers with cease-and-desist letters and stuff like that. And that’s where the rest of my story begins.
BPGL: So, if they had just left you alone, rather than trying to strong arm you, they wouldn’t have caused themselves any trouble. Instead, they in essence woke a sleeping tiger.
O’BRIEN: As I began to look into what incentive this organization might have to keep me and other moms in our place, in August of 2006, I learned that back in 1998, Kraft had funded the development of that particular group’s website, and had been the sole sponsor ever since. As I started to learn who had funded them, there was a lot of interesting information in their financial reports.
I thought, Why would Kraft have an incentive to be the sole sponsor of this website? If there was a big Kraft logo on their home page, would I take this information differently? I would.
And so, that’s when I started doing research. I needed to know what’s changed in our food that suddenly made it such a threat to our kids. Now I was raised on meat and potatoes in Houston. I was not a foodie, so a lot of this new consciousness came from being in Boulder now, where there’s a real health-conscious foodie culture. I started looking into changes in food. I started signing up for Google alerts on food allergies and novel proteins being inserted into foods, since kids with food allergies were reacting to the proteins in foods.
One night a month later, one popped through. It was about a tiny study at a university in Michigan, and it was looking into the role of genetically modified organisms in food allergies. I had never heard of genetically modified organisms. I was so not a foodie. What is a GMO? Is it like an Omega 3? Does it enhance nutrition? I started looking into what a GMO was. And that night I just didn’t sleep. Could this be the missing link? Could this be the connection? I was so naïve. I thought, That nonprofit food allergies group must not be aware of this. It’s not on their website anywhere. They must not be aware of this.
BPGL: You gave them the benefit of the doubt, even after their failed attempt to scare you off?
O’BRIEN: Yes, I started reaching out again, thinking if they were just aware, it would be so great. They would be aware that there’s this link here and that all of these scientists have been raising red flags and sounding the alarm bells on the allergenicity of these things. I thought they must have just been so caught up trying to deal with all the mothers that they didn’t have time. I was so willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
With that, that was when I was absolutely shut out. And that’s when I thought, There’s something going on here. So then I started looking at Kraft and thinking, Does Kraft use this stuff? Sure enough they do. There’s a website that was developed a few years ago. It’s Krafty.org. (Or Krafty.com). Good Morning America highlighted it on their website in a story they ran in August of that same year. It really links how the processed food industry has been using these genetically engineered proteins of soy and corn in their foods since they were introduced in 1998, which is when Kraft took over the funding of that website.
BPGL: I’m looking now, but the site is nowhere to be found.
O’BRIEN: I know. You’ll have to pull some strings and ask for Good Morning America to dig into their files!
Anyway, as I kept unearthing the information, I thought, This is an unbelievable story. How in the world am I supposed to get it out? As I kept unearthing how these chemicals and proteins have been engineered into our food supply, it was a real downer. I learned that developed countries around the world had found [genetically modified organisms] unsafe for animals, and in some cases, didn’t even allow them to be planted in their fields. And, yet, we were feeding them to our children, and they were in baby formula!
It was a really hard thing to unearth. I struggled with it, because I had been such a believer in the system. It was there to protect us. I was raised that way. It was a lonely period, because as I was trying to inform other mothers in the food allergy world, my reputation had been sullied by that nonprofit group. They sent out emails!
BPGL: Did you take action against the group for what they were saying about you?
O’BRIEN: That’s not in my nature, but that’s what the attorney wanted to do. I said no because I wanted to understand why they were doing it. In hindsight, I’m so grateful that the group [went after me], because I knew I had done nothing wrong. It was such an enormous red flag. You can only have the comfort to [stand your ground] when you are so totally standing in the truth. I tried to reach out to mothers, but they didn’t want to hear it. It was understandable, because they’d held these guys [from the food allergy website] up to the highest standard, and they had the doctors on a pedestal. I understood, because it was crushing for me to learn it. It was crushing.
BPGL: Many people would have been defeated at that point, with not only the folks at the nonprofit food allergy group speaking out against you, but also the moms themselves. That had to be a disheartening point for you. What kept you going?
O’BRIEN: I thought, if I can’t communicate with these mothers — the allergy moms, the ones who had put their trust in these doctors and their faith in this organization, that may or may not have had their best interest at heart — I’ve got to find my choir, and the people who already know this. That’s when I started reaching out to people like Nell Newman, Paul Newman’s daughter who founded Newman’s Own Organics and the scientists who had been researching food allergies, and becoming part of that team. I knew that I couldn’t just do it by myself as a mom in suburbia, Colorado. As I joined their team, they were glad at this passionate mother, but again it was sort of like, “Who are you?” and, “We’re glad that we’ve got a mom on board, but we’re the scientists.”
And I think, again, what wasn’t recognized, the thing that I really contributed to the messaging and the politics of this was the money ties. You know, these scientists weren’t aware that the pediatric allergists [speaking out against me] had been funded by Monsanto. They weren’t aware that there were patents involved and royalty streams, and that’s really what makes the story. You’ve got to step back and say, “Sure it’s ‘science based.’ But ‘science based’ in industry-funded data. Did funding influence this research?” It’s talked about in the Wall Street Journal all the time now. We need full disclosure. If we had full disclosure, if these guys were wearing baseball caps that had “Monsanto” scribbled across the front of them, or if that nonprofit group had put “KRAFT” on their website with a big logo, you probably wouldn’t listen to them the same way.
Part 1: AllergyKids Founder Seeks to Protect Children from Harmful Foods (Top of Page)
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)