Photo: Joel Page/Portland Press Herald (Getty Images)

Caution: can of worms ahead.

Everyone can agree peanut allergies are no joke, and in the most severe cases, they can be fatal. That’s why some schools have moved toward nut-free cafeterias, or restrict the homemade snacks that kids can bring to the classroom. But what about public places like, say, Target? Should those also be deemed peanut-free zones?

The debate heated up this month when a mother posted on parenting forum UrbanBaby that another shopper in Target had “lectured” her about peanut allergies; the mother was feeding her child a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at the time. Other commenters piled on the criticism, saying that the child could have wiped peanut butter on the cart or shelves: “That’s really inconsiderate. So many kids have life threatening allergies to peanut butter. Eating it in a shopping cart GUARANTEES it will be smeared on the handle, etc. Its (sic) really awful you would do this.”

Then, of course, others weighed in to defend the mom of the sandwich-eating child. One of the more extreme responses reads: “Hey bitch, theres one thing you need to learn, and that is it’s not other peoples responsibility to look out for YOUR child. If YOUR child has a peanut allergy then you fucking deal with it. Other people don’t have to watch what they eat just bc your and a couple other parents are ‘PC’.”

Ouch. Someone send these parents to time-out, please. Language!

Beyond the name-calling, the debate raises the question of whether it’s no longer acceptable to potentially expose other people to allergens in public places. Some airlines, for example, have stopped serving peanuts, while others including WestJet will create allergen-free, two-row “buffer zones” around the traveler with the allergy. What about stores, though? Or movie theaters? (It would be really hard to give up peanut M&Ms there, I’ll admit.) Or shopping malls?

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Helping fuel the tension is debate over how many people are truly affected by food allergies. Because the numbers are somewhat contested, it’s been difficult for the public to reach a consensus about what constitutes reasonable safety steps. As the peanut-butter-sandwich-in-Target incident illustrates, both sides of the peanut debate are far from reaching an amicable conclusion.