By Kathryn Hart, Partner at Lime Solicitors (www.limesolicitors.co.uk)
Natasha’s Law – its very name immediately brings to mind a grieving family deter- mined that the tragic death of their daughter will not be in vain and that they will change the law for the better to avoid another needless death. 15 -year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse died from having an allergic reaction to a baguette bought from Pret-a-Manger. She had checked the ingredients list on the packaging but crucially it omitted to mention sesame to which she was allergic. She therefore believed that it was safe to eat. Because it was made in Pret-a-Manger’s on-site kitchen at the time sesame did not need to be declared on the packaging. Instead it was sufficient for there to be signage in place encouraging the customer to enquire about allergens in their products. Following the inquest the Coroner, Dr Cummings was so concerned about this that he filed a report sent to the secretary of State for enquiries to be made to prevent future deaths.
In UK law the provision of allergen information comes under the Food Information Regulations.The customer must be notified of the 14 of most common allergens which are Celery, Cereals containing gluten (oats and barley),Crustaceans (crabs, lobster, prawns), Eggs, Fish, Milk, Lupin, Molluscs (oysters and mussels), Mustard, Sesame, Peanuts, Soybeans, Sulphur dioxide and sulphites (for concentrations above ten parts per million),Tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews, macadamias, and pistachios).
How allergens need to be notified is dependent upon the category in which the food is provided. This is where confusion arises. There are three categories. Before Natasha’s Law it was different for prepacked foods, foods prepacked for direct sale and non-prepacked foods. Prepacked foods such as those produced in a factory had to have full-ingredient labelling. Foods pre-packed directly for sale, such as the Pret-a-Manger sandwich, were not required to have product labels which provide information on the full ingredients or the allergens contained.
The reforms under Natasha’s Law now cover labelling requirements for foods that are prepared and packed on the same premises from which they are sold – such as a packaged sandwich or salad made by staff earlier in the day and placed on a shelf for purchase.They will now have to display allergens in full on their packaging. It will no longer be the case that a purchaser, reading the ingredients list on a pre-packaged sandwich for sale, will be misled by believing that that is a full list of ingredients.
But does this reform go far enough to protect consumers?
The family of Owen Carey are campaigning for Owen’s Law. Owen died on his 18th birthday after suffering from a fatal anaphylactic reaction after eating chicken at Byron’s restaurant. He had a dairy allergy and had checked the menu and asked staff to ensure that there were no dairy
products in the chicken and fries he had ordered. Notifying members of staff should actually have triggered their allergy protocol but didn’t.The waiter was seemingly unaware that the product contained buttermilk.
Food sold to eat in or take-away in restaurants or from bakeries and from deli-counters is in the third category. Food allergens need to be notified but this can be in writing or even just orally. There is no consistency across the sector. People with allergies effectively have to take responsibility each time they purchase food for working out how each individual food business chooses to relay this information.
In busy restaurants with a high turnover of staff it is self-evident that mistakes will be made. Notices may not be easy to read or indeed find and genuine misunderstandings may occur. In the writer’s own experience, a request for no cashews made in a take-away, and carefully noted by the staff, was misread by the kitchen as extra cashews and a trip to Accident and Emergency ensued. Everyday mistakes result in deaths.
What Owen’s family are looking for is clear, specific allergen labelling on every restaurant menu and for the responsibility to be on the restaurant staff to enquire about allergies. Is it too much to ask?
Readers may be surprised to hear that the civil law allows very little compensation for the death of an 18 year old. In the majority of cases where death was very swift it is likely to be limited to funeral expenses only.There is no compensation paid for death.Allergies are on the increase in modern Britain. Changes in the law will protect lives which the grieving friends and families of Natasha and Owen would say had immense value.