Allergies are deadly. That is something which has been hammered home in the past days: initially with the heartbreaking inquest into the death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, then with the tragic news of a second victim of food bought at a branch of Pret a Manger, Celia Marsh.
Both of these deaths could have been avoided had the victims been aware of what they were actually eating. Both knew they had potentially fatal allergies and were said to be generally very careful about what they ate.
In the case of the 15-year-old Ms Ednan-Laperouse, who had a sesame allergy, the allergen was baked into the product.
As a society, we are not taking allergies seriously enough. Earlier this week, the professional body for environmental health workers warned that a loophole needs to be closed in order to prevent more deaths occurring as a result of poor food labelling. Pret, they say, “did nothing wrong”; instead the regulations surrounding food labelling are not fit for purpose.
Consumers are also not taking the issue seriously. It’s fun to play around at being what is perceived as healthier by cutting things out. If you don’t have an actual allergy, stopping eating gluten or dairy can make you feel rather smug – not that there is actually any evidence to suggest it does you any real good, unless you have an existing problem with the stuff.
For people with real allergies, however, the problem is acute. The tiniest trace of the allergen can cause a potentially life-threatening reaction. In the case of Mrs Marsh, the yoghurt the company says she ate was thought to be dairy-free. Pret alleged the problem was that the supplier, coconut yoghurt provider CoYo, had not taken precautions to make sure that no dairy could enter the manufacturing process and there were traces of dairy protein.
Whether Mrs Marsh actually did die after eating the yoghurt, which had been used to make the “super-veg rainbow flatbread” she had consumed, is still a matter of debate. CoYo has denied its product is to blame and said the “true cause” of Mrs Marsh’s death has not been established.
It is still not clear exactly what happened in this case, but often when traces of a known allergen are found in a supposedly ‘free-from’ food, it is because the same factory is used for non-allergen-free production and something has not been cleaned properly in between.
Dairy allergies, like nut or shellfish allergies, are anaphylactic. Dairy ‘intolerances’ aren’t. There are people whose reaction to lactose – or the A1 protein found in milk – makes them uncomfortable, bloated or gassy. But it is not life-threatening.
The problem is that it is a case of the boy who cried wolf. It has become so fashionable to have an intolerance, or complicated dietary requirements, that there are fears the food industry is starting to take real allergies less seriously.
For people who have coeliac disease – like my friend’s eight-year-old – contamination will not have an immediate life-threatening reaction, but they will suffer highly unpleasant side effects, potentially for days. Meanwhile, continuous exposure to gluten will permanently damage their bowel, causing them major health problems in the future.
Restaurant owners have told me of customers who claim to have an allergy to, for example, dairy, meaning that the chefs have to prepare their food in a separate part of the kitchen, away from where any dairy products could potentially contaminate the dishes – only to find that the customer orders ordinary ice cream for pudding.
“Ohhh ... a little bit won’t hurt me,” they say, salivating over the creamy dessert, when the diligent waiters check that they do, actually, realise that ice cream contains dairy?
You see, if you have a real dairy allergy, a little bit of dairy could most definitely hurt you. It could kill you, in fact, as it may have in Mrs Marsh’s case.
Most restaurants have dairy-free menus, or an option of foods they can produce without dairy, or gluten, or nuts. Yet chefs tell me that the cost of producing a truly allergy-free meal is huge. If they do it properly, staff have to work specifically on the allergy-free meal and only that – at risk of cross contamination if they have been handling other foods.
Some restaurant workers admit that each time they have an experience as described above, it makes them just that little bit less sympathetic to those who desperately need them to be so.
Pret announced last week that it will begin including full ingredient labelling on all of its products. This is welcome – and no less than many other chains do – but it is too late for Ms Ednan-Laperouse and her family.
People with allergies often rely on chains because they expect them to have sweeping policies in place to protect them, proper labelling being the least of it. The fear is that the public – and that includes restaurant workers, they are only human – are becoming over-exposed to people’s dietary choices and the line between intolerance and proper allergies is becoming blurred, with potentially deadly consequences.
Quite frankly, if I had a severe allergy, or a child with one, I’d be terrified to leave the house. Allergy education needs to be improved – and fast.