As Mylan's spiking of EpiPen prices dominated headlines and social media, many ranted about corporate greed, pharmaceutical monopolies, price gouging and burdening people with allergies with sky-high out-of-pocket costs.
The epinephrine injection device can be a lifesaver for people who have life-threatening reactions to food or environmental allergens. And since Mylan acquired EpiPen in 2007, the price has skyrocketed more than 400%, from a wholesale cost of $56.64 to $317.82. Compensation for Mylan CEO Heather Bresch also increased 671%, to nearly $19 million.
Amid protest petitions, congressional outrage and media reports, Mylan lost $3 billion in stock value in five days.
Joel Warady, the chief marketing officer of Enjoy Life Foods, saw the situation a bit differently and took to Twitter to share his viewpoint.
Power of our food allergy community? We just caused Mylan to lose $3Billion in market value. #dotherightthing— Joel Warady (@EnjoyLifeCMO) August 25, 2016
Enjoy Life Foods, which makes products free of top allergens dairy, soy, gluten, tree nuts, peanuts, eggs, fish and shellfish, has been a market leader for the allergy and "free-from" food community. Since the company was started 13 years ago, Warady said that awareness and demand for allergen-free products has grown, and they've consistently been a leader in that segment.
However, he said, Enjoy Life has never done what Mylan is doing.
"You are a business, and you need to make a profit, but you don't have to make an excessive profit," Warady told Food Dive. "We wanted to see how we could make our products available to everyone. We never took advantage of our community."
What this means for the food industry
When it was founded, Enjoy Life Foods started out talking about food allergies. Warady said retailers gave them a tepid response.
But as the still-growing gluten-free movement began to snowball and knowledge about celiac disease became more widespread, people started embracing what the company had to offer. Warady said that he started to see real change in the food industry in 2012.
The free-from foods movement, which could refer to foods that are allergen-free, gluten-free, preservative-free or GMO-free, has also been taking off. Food Allergy Research & Education estimates that up to 15 million Americans—about 1 in every 13 children—have food allergies. According to Statista, retail sales for gluten-free and free-from foods in the U.S. are estimated to reach $23.9 billion by 2020.
"For the first time, this really shows the strength and the financial impact the food allergy community has. Not only on a prescription drug, but also on food itself," Warady said.
Ten years ago, parent and former financial and food industry analyst Robyn O’Brien started the AllergyKids Foundation after one of her children had a reaction. She said many food companies seemed slow to recognize the demand and market for for allergy-free foods. Now, there's no denying it.
From her knowledge of the industry, O'Brien said that the EpiPen situation is showing food companies a golden opportunity.
"I think that food companies realized that this demographic is growing at jaw-dropping rates," O'Brien told Food Dive. "The faster they can respond, the faster they can meet the needs of this consumer, the better positioned they will be in the market."
A growing community
When O'Brien started researching food allergies, she found that there's been a 400% increase in the number of people with allergies in the last two decades.
While many people might not notice the food allergy community, they've been growing in size and power. Statistically, O'Brien said, someone in this country goes to the emergency room for an allergic reaction once every three minutes. Many people in this country are close to someone who could depend on an EpiPen to save their lives, she said.
O'Brien said that the huge price increase of the EpiPen pushed thousands of families to their financial edge, and now they're pushing back. A family that deals with a serious food allergy spends an average of $4,000 more a year for groceries and products that won't cause a reaction. But their single biggest expense, she said, is the EpiPen.
When a child has a food allergy, she said, they need multiple EpiPens. At least one to keep at home, one for parents to carry with them, one for school, one for extracurriculars.
"Families need to make real choices here, and there are real tradeoffs," O'Brien said.
Warady remarked that major network newscasts have led with stories about food allergies this past week, which he hasn't seen happen before. And while much of the social media conversation is now anger toward Mylan, Warady said it's important to see what's at the center of everything.
"Isn't it great that everyone is talking about food allergies?" he said.