Lawyer for the family of Owen Carey, food safety lawyer Michelle Victor, discusses how Owen died a preventable death after eating a chicken breast from Byron Burger restaurant which had been marinated in buttermilk

An Inquest held today at Southwark Coroner’s Court into the tragic death of 18 year old Owen Carey heard how, on 22 April 2017, Owen died a preventable death.

Coroner, Bryony Ballard, determined that whilst having a celebratory 18th birthday meal at the Byron restaurant in the Greenwich O2 Centre, Owen communicated his allergies of dairy and wheat to the server. Owen then selected a grilled chicken breast with fries believing them to be free from dairy.

After considering evidence, the Coroner found that Byron’s system then ‘broke down’ at that point of communication. She identified the possibility that part of the reason this happened may have been attributable to the fact that Owen and the Byron’s serving staff were reassured by the product description on the menu as being a ‘grilled chicken burger’.

The menu made no reference to any marinade or any of the allergens to which Owen was allergic.

Accordingly, the Coroner ruled that Owen and / or the serving staff were likely misled into thinking the order was safe.

Tragically for Owen, the chicken was in fact marinated in buttermilk. Ingestion of the chicken caused Owen to suffer a severe food anaphylaxis from which he died.

Following his death, Consultant Pathologist, Dr A Marnerides, determined the medical cause of Owen’s death to be asthma exacerbation. It seems a number of food induced anaphylactic deaths may have been recorded as ‘asthma exacerbations’.

The same can be said of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse’s cause of death. The Inquest heard evidence from Professor Robert Boyle, Dr Marnerides and Professor Gideon Lack that histological features were consistent with both asthma exacerbation and anaphylaxis.

However, Professor Boyle, confirmed that it is unlikely that a death from asthma exacerbation would occur so quickly in a young person. Furthermore he expressed caution as to describing asthma exacerbation as the exact mechanism of death following a severe food anaphylactic reaction when there is a lack of scientific knowledge as to the physiological processes which occur in a human body during anaphylaxis fatality.

Taking this into consideration, the Coroner determined that the medical cause of Owen’s death was severe food induced anaphylaxis rather than asthma exacerbation.

Furthermore, her overall conclusion was that Owen died from a severe food induced anaphylactic reaction from food eaten and ordered at the restaurant despite making serving staff aware of his allergies.

So what can be learnt from this? And is the law sufficiently protecting consumers in restaurant settings?

Under Regulation 5 of the Food Information Regulations 2014, the onus to communicate allergies in restaurant settings falls on allergy sufferers themselves.

This seems particularly hazardous to younger allergy sufferers who are likely to still be developing confidence in communicating their allergies. This makes young allergy sufferers especially vulnerable.

Restaurants can currently provide allergen information to customers orally as long as there is ‘readily discernible’ signage encouraging the customer to ask a member of staff for allergen details. But what constitutes ‘readily discernible’?

The Inquest heard that the food menu Owen was presented with contained signage which had been approved by the Local Authority. However, whether such signage which was in small print in black font on a blue background on the reverse of a dual sided menu constitutes ‘readily discernable’ is questionable.

Despite this, the Inquest heard that Owen was especially competent at communicating his allergies and has been from a young age. The Coroner determined that he had communicated his allergies to staff members. Nevertheless he received a meal containing dairy to which he was allergic.

Arguably, a customer will never be able to be 100% certain of all ingredients unless they are listed on the menu. We have seen in Owen’s case that a failure of communication was the difference between life and death.

The Food Standards Agency confirms that there are over two million allergy suffers in the UK alone. The existing discretion afforded to restaurants, in accordance with Regulation 5 of the Food Information Regulations 2014, as to how restaurants communicate allergen information to customers in restaurant settings may require urgent reform to prevent future deaths.