Following the recent inquest into the death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who died after eating a Pret a Manger sandwich which contained sesame, two members of her legal team discuss the dangers of eating out for allergy sufferers. 

Dining out is considered a safe, sociable way to spend time. This is not always the case for food allergy sufferers who may become riddled with fear and anxiety when eating out.

The European Food Information to Consumers Regulation No 1169/2011 (FIC) was intended to improve food safety for allergy sufferers when eating outside of the home.

The Food Information Regulation came into force in the UK in December 2014 and refers to 14 of the most common allergens comprising eggs, milk, fish, crustaceans, molluscs, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, cereals containing gluten, soya, celery and celeriac, mustard, lupus, sulphur dioxide, and sulphates.

It places a legal obligation on all catering establishments, including restaurants, to notify consumers if their food contains any one of these 14 allergens. The regulation is therefore a mechanism to enhance food safety for food allergy sufferers but does this go far enough?

Last week we represented the family of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse at the inquest into her death. Natasha died after she ate a Pret a Manger baguette which had sesame seed baked into the dough.

The Coroner, Dr Sean Cummings, considered the processes in relation to pre-packaged foods under Regulation 5 of the Food Information Regulations 2014. Dr Cummings questioned whether large food outlets like Pret should benefit from the current laws pertaining to food labelling.

This Regulation also pertains to eating out in restaurants and this therefore poses the question whether a full review of the regulation should be undertaken.

At present, significant discretion is afforded to restaurants as to how they communicate allergen information to customers. Of particular concern is that restaurants can opt to provide allergen information orally, providing signage that is readily discernible, encouraging the customer to ask a member of staff for allergen details. But what constitutes readily discernible and what happens if restaurants fail to adhere to these regulations?

Current sanctions issued to restaurants who fail to adhere to the regulation are ineffective. The Local Authority can issue further advice or a formal enforcement notice to the restaurant requiring any breach to be remedied.

Court action can also be taken but the maximum penalty issued is £5,000. This is unlikely to deter a large, wealthy catering establishment and is almost an insult when you consider that mistakes cost lives.

Restaurant settings are particularly hazardous to allergy sufferers because they are required to trust absolute strangers. When eating in a restaurant, those with food allergies are presented with a plethora of life-threatening dangers and ‘what if’ worries as follows:

  • What if there are unexpected or hidden food allergens within the foods supplied?
  • What if waiting staff do not clearly understand that the customer has an allergy?
  • What if restaurant staff do not understand the severity of food allergies and the threat to life they impose?
  • What if waiting staff are especially busy and forget that the customer has an allergy?
  • What if this information is then not clearly communicated by the waiting staff to the kitchen staff?
  • What if there is cross-contamination of foods during preparation?

At present the allergy sufferer must always carry the burden of ensuring the safety of the food even though, as a customer, the allergy sufferer cannot be certain of the ingredients.

Even if the allergy sufferer communicates their allergies to a restaurant, they are still highly dependent on the food handling staff in restaurants to ensure the food they are served does not contain such allergens.

Surely the restaurant staff are best placed to confirm the safety of their products and therefore the burden should be fully in their hands? Surely it is their responsibility to ensure the safety of all customers by managing these dangers as part of their own risk management process?

In-house operations within a restaurant are only effective if there are also adequate allergen systems in place at every step of the food supply chain from packaging to preparation to being served the food.

However, miscommunication and insufficient training for food handling staff can also mean the difference between life and death.

To protect consumers’ safety, it is absolutely imperative that food handlers including management staff, kitchen staff, waiters and waitresses receive sufficient training on the importance of avoiding cross-contamination and that they are aware of the importance of transparency of ingredients when working in food service.

Some establishments have improved their approach to food management however the vast majority of restaurants in operation consider this a burdensome task resenting the additional bureaucracy placed on the food service industry.

But the increased bureaucracy is now necessary. Allergies are increasing globally and the UK has one of the highest amounts of Allergy sufferers worldwide. The standard of care delivered by restaurants therefore needs to advance. Many describe the UK as being in an ‘allergy epidemic’ and with no known cure for food allergies, it is vital that prevention methods are properly implemented in restaurants.

Food providers including those producing and selling pre-packaged foods, and those serving foods in restaurants and takeaway stores must adopt an integrative approach to developing and implementing allergen protocols.

The current law is impeding the lives of allergy sufferers and forcing them to lead a more restricted life as there are too many dangers associated with eating out. We believe this is potentially discriminatory. The Government should ensure that all food providers have adequate procedures and safeguards in place to protect all customers.

This can only be achieved by undertaking a comprehensive review of Regulation 5 of the Food and Information Regulations 2014 and implementing protective changes.

Allergy sufferers should feel safe to eat outside of the home and in this day and age with increasing numbers of allergy sufferers they should not need to contemplate whether to take the risk ‘to dine or not to dine’.