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Food allergies are no joke, say parents angry over new 'Peter Rabbit' movie

The filmmakers and Sony Pictures have since issued an apology.

The movie Peter Rabbit has parents of children with food allergies concerned.
The movie Peter Rabbit has parents of children with food allergies concerned.Read moreColumbia Pictures/Sony

The new Peter Rabbit movie has parents of kids with food allergies furious over a scene they find insensitive and even  potentially dangerous.

In the live-action/animated comedy, farmer Tom McGregor, played by Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson, is allergic to blackberries. Knowing this, the rabbits he is trying to keep out of his garden pelt him with the fruit, and one lands in his mouth. McGregor injects himself with an EpiPen to prevent a potentially deadly allergic reaction, then falls to the ground as the rabbits cheer.

"This is a huge step backwards," said Jean Kintisch of Wayne, who runs the Facebook group Food and Environmental Allergy Support Team (F.E.A.S.T.)  Food allergies are so serious they are considered a disability under federal law, she said. To have a stand-up comedian crack a joke is one thing, but a movie for children that depicts using a person's food allergy against him is irresponsible, she said.

She would like to see Sony Pictures edit the film to delete the scene or at least run a disclaimer warning parents about it.

Criticism lit up social media last weekend as parents reacted, urging a boycott of the movie, and specifically calling out James Corden, the comedian who is the voice of Peter Rabbit.

But some people defended the movie. "The Road Runner pushed the coyote off a lot of cliffs, and I knew not to do that," wrote a woman who said she has a food allergy.

The uproar prompted filmmakers and Sony Pictures to issue an apology.

"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," they stated in an email to the New York Times. "We sincerely regret not being more aware and sensitive to this issue, and we truly apologize."

It isn't the first time Sony Pictures Animation has raised the ire of parents with its portrayals of food allergies. The Smurfs and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs both had scenes making light of the problem.

"I think a lot of people don't really understand how serious food allergies are," said Christopher Chang, associate director of the Allergy and Immunology Fellowship at the University of California, Davis. Formerly at Thomas Jefferson University, Chang writes about children's health for "For people to make light of that reflects the lack of understanding that allergies can be deadly."

About 4 percent to 6 percent of school-age children have food allergies, and the incidence is on the rise. From 1997 to 2007, there was an 18 percent increase among children younger than 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The most common allergies are to milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat, the agency reported.

Reported cases of food being used as a tool to bully children with allergies are rare but do happen.

Kintisch said that when her daughter, who has a tree nut allergy, was in kindergarten, another classmate threatened her by shaking a snack at her and saying it had nuts. She called the incident scary but said that, generally, children are used to having friends with allergies and are more accepting of their need to avoid allergens than some adults are.

In December, criminal charges were brought against a teen in Butler County, north of Pittsburgh, accused of intentionally exposing a classmate to a food allergen.

A 14-year-old  girl with a serious allergy to pineapple was taken to a hospital after a classmate rubbed juice from a fruit cup on her hand, then high-fived the allergic teen during lunch, Lt. Matthew Pearson of the Butler Township Police Department told a KDKA television reporter. The girl was treated and was OK.

One child, also 14, was charged with aggravated assault, criminal conspiracy, simple assault, and recklessly endangering another person. Two other girls, ages 13 and 14, who were also involved face similar charges, the station reported.

Though the attack in the Peter Rabbit movie is fiction, the allergy is not.

Blackberries have a naturally occurring chemical, salicylates, that is related to aspirin. Anyone with an allergy to aspirin can have adverse symptoms even when ingesting small amounts. Most people may develop itchy skin, tingling in the face, or hives, but some will experience more serious anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction that could cause death, according to LiveStrong.