The United States of Allergies: How EpiPen Became a Billion-Dollar Brand

For the last year, we’ve been working to bring awareness to the risk that the skyrocketing price of EpiPens creates, and the fact that some families are now priced out of this life-saving devices due to its jaw-dropping price tag of about $600.

Now, of course, it’s national news, but one question many people aren’t asking is: Why has the number of people with food allergies skyrocketed?

The rate of people in the U.S. with a peanut allergy more than quadrupled between 1997 and 2010. And, a life-threatening food allergic reaction now sends someone to the E.R. once every three minutes in the U.S.

The food industry has noticed. Mondelez, formerly known as Kraft, recently acquired Enjoy Life Foods, a popular and well-loved brand in the allergy space, free from many of the top eight allergens and also free from genetically modified ingredients.

It was a $40 million company that was acquired for over $80 million. What does Mondelez plan to do with the acquisition? Grow it into a billion-dollar brand. What are some other billion-dollar brands? Cheerios, Lays, Pepsi, Starbucks….and EpiPen.

According to Bloomberg, “In a 2007 purchase of medicines from Merck, drug maker Mylan picked up a decades-old product, the EpiPen auto injector for food allergy and bee-sting emergencies. Management first thought to divest the aging device, which logged only $200 million in revenue. Today, it’s a $1.2 billion-a-year product that clobbers its rivals and provides about 40 percent of Mylan’s operating profits.”

A Growing Epidemic

Food allergies are not a niche. They are a growing epidemic that is challenging how we think about our food and how it is made. Genetic factors don’t change this quickly, environmental factors do. Are we allergic to food — or to what’s been done to it?

Researchers reporting in the Journal of the American Medical Association state that the costs of food allergies, from medical care to food to pharmaceuticals is $4,184 per child per year, costing our economy $25 billion, including lost productivity.

On top of that, the costs to families with food allergies is skyrocketing. After insurance company discounts, a package of two EpiPens costs about $415. By comparison, in France, where Meda sells the drug, two EpiPens cost about $85.

In the last year, Target, Chipotle, Kroger, and General Mills have responded to this growing demand in the marketplace. Free-from foods are even showing up in Dollar Tree stores.

These companies aren’t stupid. They see the escalating rates of diseases in their own employees, they feel the financial impact with their own health-care costs, and they hear consumers who are saying they want to eat fewer fake, artificial, and genetically engineered ingredients.

While the chemical companies selling these new ingredients say there is no evidence of harm, consumers are saying, There is no evidence since these ingredients were never labeled in the United States.

In other words, if you walked into an allergist’s office and asked if you were allergic to soy that has been in the food supply for thousands of years or if you are allergic to Roundup Ready soy, non-GMO soy treated with Roundup, or organic soy, there would be no test to give you that answer. (Next time, you are at the allergist’s office, ask which soy they are testing for.)

Because of the lack of both labeling and a test that offers definitive answers, the biotech industry is able to claim that there is not a single documented case of these foods ever causing harm.

Living in the US Increases Your Chances of Allergies

A study released in the Journal of the American Medical Association says, yes, living in the United States increases your risk of allergic diseases “significantly.” According to the research, living in the U.S. for a decade or more may raise the risk of some allergies. “These data indicate that duration of residence in the United States is a previously unrecognized factor in the epidemiology of atopic disease,” the study noted.

In other words, the longer you live here, the more likely you are to develop some kind of allergy, asthma, eczema or other related condition.

Food allergies have been skyrocketing in the United States in the last fifteen years. Not only has the CDC reported a 265% increase in the rates of hospitalizations related to food-allergic reactions in a 10-year period, but the sales of EpiPens, a life-saving medical device for those with food allergies, have seen record growth, according to The New York Times.

So what’s going on?

The study aimed to find out. Allergies reported in the survey included asthma, eczema, hay fever, and food allergies.

“Children born outside the United States had significantly lower prevalence of any allergic diseases (20.3%) than those born in the United States (34.5%),” said the study, which was led by Jonathan Silverberg of St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York.

Let’s restate that: Children born in the US have more than a 1 in 3 chance of having allergic diseases like food allergies, asthma or eczema, while kids born in other countries around the world had a “significantly lower prevalence” of 1 in 5. On top of that, “foreign-born Americans develop increased risk for allergic disease with prolonged residence in the United States,” the study noted.

In other words, if you move here, your chances of developing any one or more of these allergic diseases increase.

The study went so far as to say that children born outside of the US who moved here showed “significantly” higher odds of developing these diseases.

So what is triggering this escalating U.S. epidemic? Some experts point to the hygiene hypothesis, others point to the genetic engineering of crops. Again, are we allergic to food? Or what’s been done to it? Because genetics don’t change that quickly, and the environment does.

“This is definitely something we see clinically and we’re trying to better understand, what is it in our environment that’s increasing the risk of allergic disease?” Dr. Ruchi Gupta, who studies allergies at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago but was not involved in the study, told Reuters.

The cost of food allergies is burdening more than just the families dealing with them — it’s burdening our schools, our health care system, and our economy. It has become a billion-dollar business in less than a decade for the company making EpiPens, so they have no reason to stop it.

Until there’s a cure, there’s EpiPen, but that leaves a lot to be desired and a lot of Americans asking one question: Why 6 price increases in 6 years for a $600 device?

It reminds us here of another company and their infamous tagline: Ask Why.

That company was Enron.  And it’s time for both consumers and members of Congress to “ask why” we are seeing this outrageous increase in the price of EpiPens.

Lives are at risk.

This article was adapted from the original, which appeared on Robyn O’Brien’s website. Robyn is a former financial analyst covering the food industry. She triggered an allergic reaction in the food industry when she asked: “Are we allergic to food or what’s been done to it?”

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