She’s been called “food’s Erin Brockovich.” In case you don’t remember who Erin Brockovich is, she’s the very unlikely heroine who, as a single mother living hand to mouth, came to work as a clerk in a law firm and ended up leading that firm to magnificent glory bringing down Pacific Gas and Electric for their poisoning of the ground water in a small California town—to the tune of $333 million.
Although in quite a different manner, Robyn O’Brien is just as improbable a heroine. “I am an unlikely crusader,” she told Organic Connections. “I wasn’t a foodie. I was born and raised in Houston on Twinkies and Po’ Boys. I trusted that if it was on grocery store shelves it was safe.”
This is the same woman who, just a few short years later, after being threatened with a cease-and-desist letter from a vested interest, said to her children one morning, “Mommy is going to have to fight for this. I have learned that kids around the world don’t have the same chemicals in their foods that you guys have been eating, and I want to help protect the health of the children.”
How she got there is quite an amazing story.
From Mom to Crusader
A major achiever, Robyn graduated from business school with an MBA, the top woman in her class. She received a Fulbright grant to study in France. With all that behind her, she went to work as a Wall Street analyst on a team that managed billions in assets during the dot-com craze.
Living what would seem to most a charmed life, Robyn and her husband decided to relocate to Colorado after the birth of their first child, when her husband accepted a position with a tech firm there. “We settled into parenthood with kind of the same energy that I’d always thrown at life,” Robyn related. “We had four kids in five years.”
Then came the morning that was to be the catalyst that changed the rest of her life. “We had kids who liked peanut butter and jelly, and I didn’t really want anyone telling me what to feed my kids,” Robyn said. “Then one morning over breakfast, my fourth child had an allergic reaction. I was so flat-footed, I had no idea what was going on; I honestly thought maybe the older three had put something in her face. I raced her to the pediatrician and she asked what I had served my daughter for breakfast. I told her, but she said, ‘The allergens are eggs, dairy, wheat, soy, peanuts and nuts, so she could have been allergic to any of those things. We don’t know what she’s allergic to.’”
Robyn jumped in and began studying the subject of allergies in earnest. She hadn’t known any children herself who had food allergies, so she began examining statistics. She learned that from 1997 to 2002 there had been a doubling of the peanut allergy, that one out of seventeen children under the age of three now had a food allergy, and that according to the Centers for Disease Control there had been a 265 percent increase in the rate of hospitalizations related to food allergies. “Those are just jaw-dropping statistics,” said Robyn. “With a background in finance and statistics, I couldn’t understand what was going on.”
She began reaching out to various organizations to help create awareness on these issues. She didn’t get much response, so she talked her husband into taking some of their kids’ college money and investing it into an organization that could help identify and protect these children. On Mother’s Day 2006 AllergyKids was launched, and it was met with great initial reception and press coverage. A month after launch, Robyn appeared on CNN. It looked like things were going well—but almost immediately following the broadcast she started getting negative reactions from organizations that should have been her allies.
“As I started to get national recognition, some of the larger food allergy non-profits sort of had an allergic reaction to me,” Robyn recounted. “I thought that perhaps I wasn’t conveying the mission right; that they just needed to understand that I was trying to support, fund and advance their research. But they got pretty aggressive in their dismissiveness of me, and one of them actually ended up sending me a cease-and-desist letter. I took it to my attorney, and he said that it was an intimidation tactic and told me I should do certain things. I told him no, that I needed him to back off because I first wanted to know why they were trying to intimidate or push out a mother of four who’s trying to protect children.
“With that, I decided to pull their financial statements. I learned that this food allergy non-profit based in Washington, DC, was actually funded by Kraft and Monsanto.”
Shades of Erin Brockovich indeed.
Researching the Truth
At the time, Robyn had never heard of Monsanto, and Kraft was the company that made the macaroni and cheese her children were so fond of. So, she continued her research into allergies and their explosive growth.
“I learned that a food allergy is when your body sees food as a foreign protein,” Robyn explained. “Your body launches an inflammatory response to drive out that foreign invader. I went down the list of allergens and found that milk allergy, according to CNN and the Wall Street Journal, is the top allergy in the United States. I wondered if there was something foreign in the milk that hadn’t been there years earlier. And I was absolutely stunned when I learned that in 1994, in order to enhance profitability for the dairy industry, they began to inject cows with a growth hormone called rBGH to make the cows produce more milk.
“As an analyst, I understood that such a move would drive profit and enhance revenue. But, at the same time, I was learning that governments around the world were pointing out that rBGH had never been proven safe. Canada, the European Union, Japan, Australia and New Zealand had decided not to allow it into their cheese or into their milk because of concerns of how it made animals sick, resulting in increased use of antibiotics in the animals. Additionally, a 1996 medical journal article reported that milk with rBGH has up to ten times the amount of a hormone known as IGF-1 that regular milk has (more recent studies put the figure even higher). Relatively small increases of this hormone were reported in a 1998 article in the prestigious British medical journal the Lancet to make breast cancer seven times more likely in premenopausal women. Despite the mounting controversy, the US still allows rBGH to be injected into cows. I then wondered if the US had higher rates of cancer than other developed countries. I went to the American Cancer Society and learned that the US has the highest rate of cancer of any country in the world, and that migration studies showed that if you were to move here from somewhere like Japan, your likelihood of developing cancer would increase fourfold.
“At that point there were nights when I was putting my kids to bed and I thought, ‘How many sippy cups have I filled with this stuff? And how many bowls of cereal have I poured?’ And I wasn’t told what moms around the world, in countries other than the US, had already been told.
“I then continued on down the list of allergies and came to soy: had we done something to soy? I discovered that in the 1990s, again in order to drive profitability for the livestock industry (soy is one of the feeds used to fatten cattle), it was engineered to have a high sugar content.”
Next on the list: allergy to corn, which Robyn had also seen many concerns about. She learned that, due to growing concern on the spraying of insecticide in cornfields, scientists had genetically engineered an insecticidal protein into the DNA of a corn seed so that as the plant grew it could release its own insecticide. As a result it was no longer regulated under the FDA but, as an insecticide, was now under the EPA. Robyn found that other countries had either not allowed genetically modified corn into the food supply or, at the very least, insisted on it being labeled so that consumers could make an informed choice.
Building a Team
While her research continued, Robyn went looking for friends, allies and team members other than her own family, as she knew she’d need them. When she checked into who had publicly expressed serious concern regarding genetically modified crops, the first person Robyn came upon was Nell Newman, daughter of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and founder of Newman’s Own Organics. She reached out to Nell, who responded and eventually became an advisor, friend and member of Robyn’s “Inspiration Team.”
As she had already been compared to Erin Brockovich, it was recommended that she also reach out to Ms. Brockovich. “I don’t know if I expected to really hear back from Erin, but like Nell she replied, and it was so inspiring. This is such an enormous story—the scope of the problem, the lack of transparency, the lack of full disclosure, and the fact that we simply hadn’t been told what many eaters around the world had already been told. We weren’t given the opportunity to make an informed choice. So to then have people like Nell and Erin get in my corner was just amazing.”
It didn’t stop there. She received the support of Bobby Kennedy, Jr., plus several other notable names. And she now has an executive director in Seleyn DeYarus, former Development Director for The Organic Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to furthering scientific research on the health benefits of reducing our exposure to the chemicals and synthetic ingredients in our food supply.
AllergyKids also has a highly qualified medical advisory team, which includes Dr. Bob Sears, noted author and one of the most trusted names in pediatrics; pediatric neurotoxicologist Dr. Kenneth Bock, who has conducted critical and highly recognized research into asthma, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), autism and allergies; Dr. Joel Fuhrman, whose research on diet and health is relied upon by corporations around the country; and Dr. Roy Steinbock, a family pediatrician who focuses on the root cause of problems and aims to support his patients’ natural ability to heal.
Today, AllergyKids Foundation is moving full steam ahead and much of their plentiful research can be found on their excellent website. There, parents can learn the latest news on allergies, vaccinations and much more. Last year Robyn published a book entitled The Unhealthy Truth, in which she details the alarming relationship between the manipulation of our food and the increase in dangerous allergies in our children and cancers in our families, and offers a straightforward road map to healthy living.
Through her book and her research Robyn continues to document the startling rise in allergies, which parallels toxins introduced into our food and environment. But it goes beyond allergies—she has discovered that one in three children has either allergies, asthma, autism or symptoms of ADHD.
“There is too much evidence in support of the coincidence of these factors,” Robyn said. “We’re surrounded by these environmental insults that weren’t part of the environment 30 years ago, and the debate’s still out. Is it the vaccines? Is it the food? Is it the environment? There are so many theories, I feel to dismiss any of them is irresponsible—particularly to not address the toxins that are in the food supply here in the US, given that the World Cancer Report recently stated that 85 percent of cancers are environmentally triggered.”
One interesting factor that has turned up in her research deals with ADHD—the subject of much controversy and questionable drug treatments. “There’s a study out of the UK called the Southampton Study, first conducted about eight years ago,” Robyn explained. “It was very conclusive. It was a double-blind study showing how synthetic ingredients—artificial colors like yellow number 5, sodium benzoate and some other ingredients—contribute to hyperactivity in kids. They did a follow-on study seven years later that was so compelling that Kraft, Walmart and Coca-Cola decided to voluntarily remove the ingredients that were cited in that study from the products that they sold overseas. Kraft and Coca-Cola made different products for eaters overseas, and in my own research I highlight how the Kraft spokesman in the UK said that Kraft UK does not have a lunchable product line that contains any of these ingredients.
“What’s stunning to me is to see these corporations move voluntarily ahead of any legislation on the overwhelming strength of these studies and the response that consumers had to them. It’s kind of depressing that our American corporations are reformulating their products overseas and not here. But at the same time, it’s really an education campaign so that they can know that we know.
“We deregulated our financial system and we ended up with toxic assets,” Robyn concluded. “We deregulated the food system and we’ve ended up with toxic assets. It’s time to set it straight. If governments around the world are actually doing a better job, using this precautionary approach to try to prevent illness, to try to prevent onset of diseases in their countries, we don’t have to wait to implement that here in the US; we can do the same thing. Unfortunately, it’s going to have to start with the public themselves getting educated. You can learn about the hazardous elements, wean your kids off them, and before you know it you’ll have really started to clear a lot of these chemicals out of your family’s diet.”
To tap into Robyn’s research and learn more, visit the AllergyKids website at www.allergykids.com.
You can order Robyn’s book, The Unhealthy Truth, from our bookstore.