There’s a scene in Sony Animation’s new Peter Rabbit in which the title bunny and his critter buddies try to take down their human rival by weaponizing blackberries — knowing he is allergic to them. Parents and advocacy groups were not amused, some alleging “food allergy bullying” and crowing for a boycott, and now an apology has been issued.

“Food allergies are a serious issue,” Sony and the filmmakers said in a statement. “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 kerfuffle began over the weekend with a warning about the scene from the Kids with Food Allergies Foundation, which tweeted:

The president of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, which is behind the social media campaign that included the above tweet, caught the pic Saturday and followed up with an open letter to the filmmakers and studio execs noting that “food allergies are not a punchline” (read it below).

In the film, Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden) and his animal pals are out to infiltrate the vegetable garden tended by the villainous Mr. McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson) and need to get him out of the way. But he’s having none of it and deploys weapons and tactics of his own to shoo them off. The blackberries assault is merely one of many attempted takedowns of Mr. McGregor.

The CGI/live-action hybrid overperformed in its debut at the domestic box office this past weekend, snagging $25M to beat estimates. The film’s trailer doesn’t show the berry assault, but you can watch it here anyway.

And here is the open letter penned by Kenneth Mendez, President and CEO
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, addressed to Sony Pictures brass Tony Vinciquerra and Robert Lawson, Columbia president Sanford Panitch, Sony Animation president Kristine Belson and Zaren Nalbandian of Peter Rabbit producer Animal Logic:

Dear Mr. Vinciquerra, Mr. Lawson, Mr. Panitch, Mr. Nalbandian and Ms. Belson:

On behalf of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) and the more than 15 million Americans living with food allergies, I am writing with some concerns about a food allergy segment included in the “Peter Rabbit” movie. The segment featured the intentional attack of the McGregor character with the food he is allergic to – the implication being that the rabbits wanted to kill or harm McGregor with this method. The result is that McGregor experienced a severe allergic reaction, known as anaphylaxis, and treated himself with his epinephrine injection. Additionally, the segment makes light of the seriousness of food allergies and suggests that food allergies are “made up for attention.”

This isn’t the first time that Sony Pictures Animation has used food allergies as a punchline in the plot of a kids’ movie. Sony has misrepresented food allergies in “The Smurfs” and “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” as well.

AAFA (www.aafa.org and www.kidswithfoodallergies.org), a not-for-profit organization founded in 1953, is the leading patient organization for people with asthma and allergies, and the oldest asthma and allergy patient group in the world. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 50 million Americans have allergies.i There is no cure for food allergies. Anaphylaxis is the most severe allergic reaction. Symptoms include flush; tingling of the palms of the hands, soles of the feet or lips; light-headedness, and chest-tightness. If not treated immediately, these can progress into seizures, cardiac arrhythmia, shock and respiratory distress. Anaphylaxis can result in death.

Living with food allergy can have negative effects on the quality of life of patients and their families because they need to remain vigilant about accidental exposures.ii The National Academy of Medicine (NAM) recently examined critical issues related to food allergy, including the prevalence and severity of food allergy and its impact on affected individuals, families, and communities; and current understanding of food allergy as a disease, and in diagnostics, treatments, prevention, and public policy.iii

During an allergic reaction, patients require the life-saving drug epinephrine and must go to the nearest hospital for follow-up treatment. The very real fear and anxiety that people experience during an allergic reaction (often referred to as an impending sense of doom) is a serious matter. Making light of this condition hurts our members because it encourages the public not to take the risk of allergic reactions seriously, and this cavalier attitude may make them act in ways that could put an allergic person in danger.

It is extremely important that people with a food allergy avoid the food to which they are allergic, as contact with their allergen can cause a life-threatening allergic reaction. People with a severe food allergy face challenges every day. Recently, there have been distressing accounts of children using food to bully and assault children with food allergies, and some cases have resulted in death for the child with food allergies and criminal charges for the attackers.iv, v

The federal civil rights law, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), gives people with disabilities the right to ask for changes where policies, practices or conditions leave you out or put you at a disadvantage. In 2008, the ADA changed to include more people in the definition of “disabled”. Conditions like food allergies that only show symptoms at certain times are now included. The ADA protects people with food allergies even if allergic reactions happen only when triggered.

We would welcome the opportunity to educate your company and the cast of the movie about the realities of food allergy so that they and your viewing audience can better understand and recognize the gravity of the disease. We would like to work together to promote positive attitudes and safe environments for those with disabilities such as food allergies. We encourage you to examine your portrayal of bullying in your films geared toward a young audience. We strongly urge you to refrain from the type of programming that mocks food allergies in the future.

We are available to discuss further. Please feel free to contact me  or Melanie Carver, AAFA’s Vice President of Community Health and Services, at media@aafa.org.

Regards,

Kenneth Mendez
President and CEO
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America