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Robyn O'Brien

You’ve referred to yourself as a “reluctant crusader” for healthy, safe food. How did you get started?
Appropriately, at breakfast. My daughter had just finished her scrambled eggs when her lips started to swell and her face became swollen and red. After rushing her to the ER, we found out she was allergic to eggs. Until then, I wasn’t focused on healthy eating at all. This experience changed my perspective, to say the least.

So many kids have food allergies these days. What made you look beyond that to see a bigger problem?
My daughter’s diagnosis got me wondering why so many people are allergic to food now. Twice as many kids suffer from food allergies as a decade ago. At the time I was a financial analyst, so I had good research skills. I started looking into food allergies and quickly found a headline linking them to genetically engineered foods. I had never heard of GEFs, so I started researching those.

I soon found that the problem went beyond food allergies. ADHD, breast cancer, and autism were on the rise, too, and I wondered if there was a link to food. I quit my job and started delving into food-company financial reports, other public records, and health news full-time.

What did you find out?
For starters, I learned that food companies manufacture their products differently for overseas markets because governments in other countries have tighter regulations. The United States is far behind other developed countries when it comes to food standards, allowing companies to include more artificial dyes, artificial growth hormones, and GMOs. The FDA also relies on research from the food companies themselves to ensure that these ingredients are safe. No long-term, independent safety studies are conducted. The trust I used to have in the food system—and that the products in grocery stores had been independently tested for safety—was unmerited.

What do you hope to achieve?
My goal is to reverse the epidemics of disease that we’re seeing in our country. Our children are called “Generation Rx” because of the rates of food allergies, diabetes, obesity, asthma, autism, and pediatric cancer. By pushing reform in the food industry, I hope I can help change this.

Do you see signs that things are starting to improve?
Yes, thank goodness! I applaud W. Rodney McMullen, the Kroger Foods CEO who made the risky decision to increase the number of healthier brands he carries in his stores—to the tune of $1 billion in revenue. In addition, Nestle and Hershey’s recently announced that they’re removing artificial ingredients and GMOs from some of their products, and Target is doubling the number of organic food products in its stores. Change is everywhere, and it’s a very exciting time to be doing this work.

What would you say to parents who share your concerns but aren’t sure how they can make a difference?
No matter how big the problem is, we can make our voices heard in schools, board rooms, and Congress. And we can make a difference in our homes by making one change at a time: Cut out artificial dyes, then start buying hormone-free milk, then eliminate processed foods and avoid buying GEFs. Finally, keep your momentum going by finding like-minded friends. It’s a lot more fun making changes when you have someone to share them with.

Robyn O’Brien’s foundation, AllergyKids, works to bring attention to the problems in our food supply and how they are affecting children’s health. For resources and more information on how you can make a difference in your own community, visit robynobrien.com/allergy-kids-foundation

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