Food labelling regulations must be improved, following the death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse and a staggering rise in cases of potentially fatal anaphylaxis, writes Martyn McLaughlin, who has a rare food allergy.
It has been harrowing to read about the death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, a bright young teenager whose life was cut short by a severe food allergy.
In July 2016, she and her family were en route to a holiday in France when she bought a baguette from Pret A Manger at Heathrow Airport.
Around 20 minutes after eating it, Natasha complained that her throat was feeling itchy, and large red welts began to appear on her midriff. Her father, Nadim, injected her with adrenaline from an EpiPen, but it did not work.
Natasha’s condition continued to deteriorate. The welts spread across her body and she found it increasingly difficult to breathe. Her father administered a second EpiPen. It was in vain. Soon afterwards, she lost consciousness and went into cardiac arrest. She died later that day, aged just 15.
It transpired that she had suffered a fatal reaction to sesame seeds in the baguette which were not listed among the ingredients.
Two years on, Natasha’s parents are campaigning for a urgent change in food labelling laws to prevent a similar tragedy.
Although guidelines require restaurants and takeaway outlets to inform customers if products contain any of the 14 “most dangerous” allergens, a loophole exists in the form of freshly handmade, non pre-packaged goods, which do not have to be individually labelled.
“It’s not difficult to label products with allergens,” said Natasha’s mother, Tanya. “Nobody else should ever have to suffer such a needless death.”
It is a cast-iron argument, but if anything, its aim of closing that loophole is too modest in its ambition.
As someone with a rare food allergy, I have lost count of the number of anaphylactic shocks I have experienced over the years, and consider it remarkable that I have not suffered serious consequences, given how recklessly I once treated a life-threatening conditon.
It first came to light when I was four, visiting my grandparents. Roaming around the kitchen in pursuit of mischief, I dipped a finger into an inviting stock pot. That was the first – and last – time I sampled my granny’s lentil soup, but I’ll say this; it certainly filled you up. Other than a hospital sandwich, I ate nothing else for two days.
Given it was the 1980s, a time when awareness of food allergies was minimal at best, the only course of action was to avoid lentils. But as the years passed, it became clear that they were not the only food that posed a risk. Peas, chickpeas, and other members of the legume family were added to the list.
That minimised the attacks, though it didn’t stop them. There were plenty of times when, truth be told, I had no one to blame such as myself.
There was the house party where I scooped a pretzel into what I blithely assumed to be a tub of sour cream dip. The tub, it turned out, was full of hummus, effectively my kryptonite. Cue my withdrawal to a nearby bedroom where I lay listening to the sound of my airways constricting.
On other occasions, I tried to manage the risk, but to no avail. Ahead of one disastrous Valentine’s meal at an Indian restaurant, I had called in advance to ensure the dish I planned to order contained no unwelcome surprises. Yet halfway through the meal, I noticed the telltale signs of anaphylaxis.
It transpired the pan the kitchen staff cooked my dish in had hosted a dhal a few hours previously. It had been washed, but the slightest trace of those damned lentils was enough to do damage.
The rest of the evening was spent poleaxed on the couch, murmuring reassurances as my date asked whether she ought to call for an ambulance. It was a romantic gesture of sorts.
The severity of that incident was a wake-up call. I realised that no amount of vigilance could prevent potentially fatal mistakes, and I attended the Western Infirmary in Glasgow, where a simple skin prick test confirmed I had a host of severe and rare allergies.
A stern consultant expressed amazement it had taken me so long to seek help, and recoiled when I explained how I usually dealt with anaphylaxis. “You could have died,” he told me. “You still could.”
Nowadays, I carry an EpiPen with me at all times, with a back-up tucked away in the glove compartment. For the most part, this means the handful of minor attacks I suffer in any given year are short-lived, but danger lurks where you least expect it. The recent trend among manufacturers for using gram flour in pork products meant I was nearly killed by a humble sausage a few months back – an inauspicious way to go, if ever there was one.
In an ideal world, the list of the “most dangerous” allergens would be expanded, and include freshly made goods. However, I fear there will be more pressing battles to win.
The existing system is based around EU regulations; post Brexit, what guarantee is there that the warning system will be retained, let alone enhanced, especially if the regulatory framework becomes aligned with the US? In the two decades to 2012, there was a 615 per cent increase in the rate of hospital admissions for anaphylaxis in the UK. That unwelcome trend is, I fear, here to stay.
I have learned the hard way of the need to be more watchful and cautious about hidden allergens, but the most important realisation is that individuals alone cannot minimise risk. Deaths from food allergies are mercifully rare, but as the case of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse should make clear, even one is too many.