Tragic News – Sesame Allergic Reaction
Front page of the BBC News – a 15-year girl died on a flight to Nice in the summer of 2016. The cause: an allergic reaction to sesame eaten in an Pret-a-Manger baguette.
I am overcome with a variety of different emotions reading about this: Utter sadness that a child’s life was ended so early; relief that Piglet’s allergies (as painful and inconvenient as they are) do not expose him to this level of risk; anger that something so simple as mis-labelling (although probably not in the eyes of the law – I’ll come to this) has led to something so tragic; overwhelming sorrow that a father would have to witness, so helplessly, their child die. I also feel slightly uncomfortable blogging about it. I feel so much sympathy for the family and imagine the last thing they want is to read some of the headlines out there clearly intended to ‘click-bait’ readers to finding out more by using highly emotive headlines; but on the other hand it’s not often that the thing I write about makes front page news and as horribly tragic as it is, if it helps raise awareness and avoids just one person befalling the same fate then surely now is the time to discuss it?
There are probably a couple of things that are worth noting: 1) The girl, Natasha, knew she was allergic to sesame and her dad administered two EpiPens in an attempt to save her life. 2) She bought the baguette at a Pret-a-Manger just prior to boarding the plane rather than having been given it on the flight. 3) The baguette would not have been labelled individually in the Pret-a-Manger store. The UK’s Food Regulations 2014 allows for freshly handmade, non pre-packaged food to not be individually labelled. There would have been signs in the fridge telling consumers with allergies to seek advice before purchasing. I’ve eaten at Pret-a-Manger many times and I’ve never realised that the labelling in their fridges might not be enough to make the appropriate decision.
Let’s be clear – there are no winners here. A child has lost her life, a family are grieving, I’m sure staff at the airport store will feel awful and corporate big-wigs will almost certainly have had high-level emergency meetings about whether following the legal requirement was doing enough to prevent this happening, planning a legal and Public Relations response and wondering how hard the bad publicity will have hit their bottom line. Without knowing any of the details, I suspect the inquest that is currently on-going will focus on two areas: 1) is it appropriate to allow freshly handmade food to not be labelled? And 2) how easy is it to ask for allergen information in this context?
I don’t have the answer to either question. I suspect it would be crazy to ask for every handmade item to be individually labelled wherever it’s being bought from (in much the same way that logging the exact nutritional values of a sandwich that you make on demand doesn’t make sense). I guess you could beg the question of whether Pret’s sandwiches fit the image the law makers had in mind when that law was introduced. They may be handmade but they’re also mass produced in the sense you can walk into any of the ~500 stores in the UK and order virtually exactly the same sandwich as you’re used to at home. And so, with an allergen menu that is available (with disclaimers) on line, it begs the question as to whether it’s right that the labelling isn’t made visible. What makes it worse is that some allergens are certainly visible in some stores and this is where I think it gets difficult… I made the same point about Castle Howard, it’s much worse to attempt to take responsibility for the allergen management and get it wrong than it is to just admit you don’t know. As much as the law helps – it forces some establishments who should probably sit in the second category (“I don’t know”) to pretend they’re in the first (“I’ve got this”). You can see how the confusion happens – I walk into one store and see (Milk) written on a sandwich and don’t buy it. The next day I walk into a different store and don’t see (Milk) on a different sandwich – how would I know I now need to ask?
On the second point – I think this is the one thing we might be able to change on the back of this tragedy. It is really difficult to ask for allergen information sometimes. It’s completely different asking a waiter in a restaurant to help you choose your food appropriately compared to trying to pick an item off an unmanned shelf where the only employees are on the tills. Picturing a busy Pret-a-Manger at an airport, I can imagine this to be even more so the case. I’m reminded of our recent trip back from holiday in Portugal this summer where my wife and I were almost driven to tears in the frustration of trying to find anything we could eat before boarding the plane back home. Queuing at take-away till after till only to find that nothing was suitable or to have someone walk you through the selections clearly guessing what might be OK or not… Also you feel like a huge inconvenience – the staff are usually trying to manage a queue 7-people deep and getting them to help look up allergens requires guts (often with no clue where to start – “this is gluten-free” is one of the more frustrating responses to get).
But next time I need to ask someone to step away from the till to help me and my family choose something safe to eat – I will take courage from this story that I am completely within my rights to do so and hope that, by having heard about his awful event, they are sympathetic to my need to take up their time.