Each year, about ten people in Britain die from allergic reactions to food. The case of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who died after eating a sandwich from Pret a Manger, was a nasty reminder of how allergies can claim young lives at any moment. But it also raises a difficult question: to what extent are businesses that serve food culpable? Why do so many people, after this case, want to blame Pret and only Pret?
It’s territory with which I am familiar, as a mother of two children with severe allergies. When Alastair, my son, was eight years old we attended one of the first allergy clinics at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. They inserted small slivers of chicken, turkey and pheasant into cuts in his arms and measured the allergic reaction. Diagnosis: instantaneous. Treatment? None. Avoidance is the only answer — no vaccinations, no pills or surgery. We left with an Epipen and a sense of foreboding.
I started obsessively reading the food labels on products, which have much improved over the years. In spite of constant vigilance, I made mistakes. Who knew that a ham sandwich could be made of ‘turkey ham’? We learnt the hard way that roast potatoes are now often cooked in goose fat. So even when I was buying everything for my son myself, casting a paranoid eye over everything he ate, mistakes crept in. We needed to make sure that we had the Epipen at the ready.
I wished for a magic wand that I could wave over a food product and it could tell me if it was safe. So I did my best to invent one. The result was Foodwiz, one of the first health apps. Consumers could scan the barcode of any food item for their allergy. My local MP, Matt Hancock, supported my amateur efforts to bring it onto the market. He now believes that apps can save lives (watch what he will do as Secretary of State for Health).
Nevertheless, after all my experience of the allergy world, I have come to realise that however much information is available, nothing can cover for human error. Fast-food outlets and even restaurants are minefields: thousands of unskilled people working under pressure cannot be expected to protect you and your rare allergy. It is the responsibility of the parent on behalf of the child allergy sufferer. Then of that child as they grow up.
For many years, my family simply never ate out. The first time we ever went to a Chinese restaurant was a night to remember. We must have been the customers from hell, carefully explaining the allergies to a bemused waiter. All went well. The excitement! Most restaurants are now mostly much better prepared for customers with allergies. And smaller eateries are safer than large ones.
I taught Alastair and Rosalind, my daughter, to be suspicious, to view their allergens as poison. I encouraged them to ask waiters, chefs and friends what was in their food. It doesn’t always work. Alastair had a disastrous Valentine’s Day dinner in an Ethiopian restaurant where two waiters assured him that the meat in the pancake was ‘definitely lamb’. It turned out that it wasn’t.
While I was creating my app, I interviewed the head chef at the Savoy. ‘How do you cope with cooking for hundreds of people at a time, with all the allergies they might have?’ I asked. He replied that the first thing he looked for was the age of the guests. Over 55 — no allergies at all; 35-55 — a few intolerances and self-diagnosed allergies. Under 35 — an increasing number of both. ‘Most are just intolerant or on odd diets. The hardest guests to cope with are the very few people with allergies that can kill them.’ That is why we must insist that our children look out for themselves.
Pret are now improving their allergy labelling, but after 25 years of coping with allergies and trying to solve the terrible problems they create, I would beg any parent: don’t expect a complete guarantee. Busy kitchens will always be prone to human error. Even if allergen labelling is 99 per cent accurate, that means you can expect a problem with one in every 100 things you order. So those of us with allergies (or with children with allergies) need to ask before we eat out: is this a risk we wish to run? And are we prepared?
I sought to drill into my children that it is not the responsibility of companies like Pret to protect them. If you have a life-threatening allergy, it’s crazy to trust others with your food preparation. We might expect restaurants to get better at dealing with the problem. But it is a shared responsibility.