Kari Keaton is the sort of customer most businesses used to hate. The Rockville mother lingers at the grocery store, poring over ingredient labels. She calls food manufacturers and interrogates their customer service representatives about what sorts of foods get processed in the same facility and probes them on the meaning of "natural flavoring." And after all that effort, she still may not buy their product.
The way Keaton sees it, she has little choice. Her two sons, 10 and 15, suffer from severe food allergies. Keeping them from accidentally eating something that could trigger a fatal reaction has become the former IBM field manager's full-time job.
But Keaton, 52, and consumers like her are increasingly coveted by corporations and entrepreneurs who see an economic opportunity in catering to the needs of people who have food allergies or celiac, a condition treated by avoiding gluten. Marketing to the food-sensitive has become so widespread that the Girl Scouts now sell three kinds of milk-free cookies, Anheuser-Busch has a gluten-free beer and Kellogg's makes Pop-Tarts in nut-free factories.