In the restrained romantic spirit of generations of menfolk, my plans for the evening of Valentine’s Day were deliberately modest so as to avoid any potential pitfalls. A few drinks followed by a meal at a friendly and reputable local Indian restaurant. What could go wrong? The only conceivable problem – my legume allergy – had been circumvented with a conservative order of a chicken tikka masala.
A few bites in, however, I knew trouble lay ahead. My lips started to itch and my throat began to swell. Within a few minutes, I was struggling to breathe. In the circumstances, I did what any Scottish man would, and pretended everything was fine, loosening a button on my shirt before forcing down a few forkfuls of rice, an experience not unlike forcing a fistful of Playdoh into a thimble.
The attacks had visited me infrequently before, two or three times annually in a bad year. I thought I knew not only how to avoid – no lentils, peas or chickpeas (a small sacrifice to the west of Scotland diet) – the triggers, but how to handle the aftermath. This mainly involved lying back for a couple of hours until the sensation passed, insisting to all and sundry that I was fine. Not this time. Hours passed and for days afterwards, I felt drained.
It later transpired the pan in which my dish was cooked had been used earlier in the evening to make a tarka dahl. It had been washed, but whatever negligible trace of lentils remained was sufficient to fell me like a side of beef and reduce my date’s role for the evening to that of a bewildered carer.
I’m ashamed to admit it was only the ferocity of that attack six years ago that prompted me to seek out help at the age of 30. I was referred to the West of Scotland Anaphylaxis Service at Glasgow’s old Western Infirmary, where after a few pin pricks with various substances, I was diagnosed with a severe form of anaphylaxis and an incontrovertible case of stupidity. It was made clear to me in no uncertain terms that any one of the hundreds of attacks I had suffered over my lifetime could well have shuffled off my mortal coil. I was sent packing with a few adrenaline auto-injectors and my tail between my legs.
It was not an invincibility complex that stopped me from seeking out specialist help, but obstinacy and a confidence born of ignorance. I presumed restaurants took every necessary precaution, provided I flagged up the issue in advance. Hindsight has allowed me to realise there are no such guarantees.
Whether it is through stubbornness, carelessness or negligence on their part or that of others, the prospect of hospitalisation or worse is an ever present threat for people with severe food allergies.
The threat was brought home in tragic fashion this week with the conclusion of the trial into the death of Paul Wilson. The 38-year-old suffered a severe anaphylactic shock after eating a takeaway from a North Yorkshire eatery. Ever vigilant about his peanut allergy, he ordered a chicken tikka masala – my own safe dish of choice – from the Indian Garden in Easingwold.
A dish made primarily from tomatoes, cream and spices like paprika and turmeric, Mr Wilson had no reason to believe the curry would make him ill. Even so, he erred on the side of caution and specified that it should contain no nuts.
Regrettably, the owner of the establishment, Mohammed Zaman, had an utter disregard for potentially deadly allergies. In a drive to cut costs, he used a cheap groundnut mix containing peanuts. For Mr Wilson, whose allergy was so severe that even the smell of peanuts could trigger a reaction, the results were lethal.
Zaman was this week imprisoned for six years after being found guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence and six food safety offences. The case has been described as a legal first that acts as a wake-up call to the food industry. The sentence may well be one that sends out a stern warning, but it will take more that the prospect of prison to make restauranteurs realise they have a duty of care to customers.
Zaman’s trial at Teeside Crown Court made clear that only a fluke prevented other customers from losing their life. He had been using the groundnut mix for seven months before Mr Wilson’s visit. Three weeks beforehand, teenager Ruby Scott was hospitalised after eating a chicken korma from another one of his restaurants.
That incident prompted a visit by a trading standards officer a week before Mr Wilson’s death. He found evidence of peanuts in a meal advertised as peanut-free. The officer told staff in all of Zaman’s restaurants that customers must be informed if they were using peanuts.
The complete disregard Zaman showed for serious allergies is, thankfully, the exception, but the case highlights the need for tighter regulatory control.
Restaurants and takeaways who flout hygiene standards are rightly punished if they repeatedly flout inspections, with closure an option in the most extreme cases. The severity of some allergies and the increasing number of people who suffer from them – according to Allergy UK, there has been a 615 per cent spike in hospital admissions for anaphylaxis over the past 20 years – should be justification enough to allow regulatory bodies and local authorities to take stronger action.
The campaign to inform the public and the food industry has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, but every death is from an allergy is an avoidable one. I consider myself lucky to be able to belatedly realise that.