Food labelling and allergic reactions
I frequently receive requests for legal advice following allergic reactions to food. Enquiries have come from the allergy sufferers themselves, from their loved ones calling on their behalf and in some sad cases from bereaved family members. The common feature seems to be that the allergy sufferer was given insufficient or inaccurate information regarding the food that they had purchased.
A large amount of media attention and public interest concerning allergic reactions to food followed the inquest of 15 year old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse. In July 2016, Natasha suffered a fatal allergic reaction after purchasing a baguette from Pret A Manger at Heathrow Airport, which contained sesame seeds. She collapsed and suffered a cardiac arrest on a flight from London to Nice and died within hours.
It was subsequently determined at Natasha’s inquest that there were nine sesame-related incidents during the year leading up to Natasha’s death, six of which concerned baguettes similar to the one that she had purchased. One of these incidents in October 2015 involved a woman who almost died after suffering an anaphylactic reaction. Despite these warnings, Pret A Manger failed to label all of their food with allergy information.
The law relating to provision of allergen information
EU Regulations stipulate that consumers must be made aware when any one of 14 common allergens is used as an ingredient in food products. These 14 allergens include things like gluten, eggs, nuts, milk, and sesame seeds. However, it is down to each member state to decide how information concerning non pre-packed food is communicated to the customer. For example, under the UK Food Regulations 2014, freshly made items are not required to be individually labelled with a full list of ingredients.
In Natasha’s case, the baguette was made on-site and not pre-packed. Therefore, it was not individually labelled with allergen information. Pret claimed that there were signs in the fridge advising customers with allergies to see its allergen guide or speak to a manger for advice. Natasha’s father Nadim claimed that there was no label on the fridge the day his daughter died and regardless, it begs the question whether such action is enough to adequately protect consumers.
Understandably, Natasha’s father also claimed that current food labelling laws were “playing Russian Roulette” with his daughter’s life. He described the law as not being fit for purpose and called for change.
Potential changes to the laws regarding allergen labelling for food
On the final day of Natasha’s inquest, the coroner described Pret’s allergy labelling as “inadequate”. He found that Natasha had been “reassured” by the lack of specific allergen information.
The coroner confirmed that he would prepare a report to the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, concerning whether large businesses should be able to benefit from regulations that allow freshly handmade items to not be individually labelled – a ‘caveat’ originally designed to lessen the burden on small businesses.
It seems only logical for large food retailers such as Pret to be legally obligated to individually label all food items with allergy information. When selling high volumes of handmade products without full labelling to such a huge number of people, it can only be a matter of time until another innocent customer suffers from an allergic reaction.
I was recently interviewed on BBC News regarding this topic. I firmly believe that mandatory labelling for both pre-packed and handmade food items is the only sensible solution, particularly for large mass catering businesses with a national reach.
Following a meeting with Michael Gove, Natasha’s parents were optimistic that the above changes to the law will be implemented by the end of 2019. In the meantime, food retailers should be thoroughly reviewing their labelling policies.
Too little too late for Natasha and her family
Where food sellers fail in their legal duty to provide consumers with allergen information, they open themselves up to personal injury claims. The injured party will seek to recover damages for their injury and any associated expenses. In fatal incidents, families may look to claim compensation on behalf of the deceased’s estate and any dependants. This can be expensive for the defendant businesses, not to mention damaging for their reputations. For the claimants, no amount of money will ever compensate those who have lost loved ones following fatal allergic reactions.
Whilst it is encouraging to hear that following Natasha’s inquest Pret will be trialling full ingredient labelling on their products, this change has come far too late for her and her family. Hopefully, all food retailers, both large and small, will learn from this. We also need a change in the law to tighten up the food labelling rules to prevent such tragedies from re-occurring. For now, it is comforting to see that the Government appear to be taking this very seriously and are actively reviewing the legislation.
Ben Pepper is a Senior solicitor in the Personal Injury team at Bolt Burdon Kemp. If you or a loved one have suffered an injury as a result of someone else’s negligence, contact Ben in confidence on 020 7288 4815 or at BenPepper@boltburdonkemp.co.uk. Alternatively, complete this form and one of the solicitors in the Personal Injury team will contact you. Find out more about the Complex Injury team.