The story of 15-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who died in 2016 after eating a Pret A Manger sandwich before a flight to Nice, has shaken the nation in recent weeks, in particular the two million Brits with diagnosed food allergies.
An inquest into Natasha’s death said the allergen information on the sandwich’s packaging was “inadequate”. Investigations are also ongoing into the death of 42-year-old Celia Marsh in 2017, after a suspected allergic reaction to eating a Pret flatbread that was supposed to be dairy-free.
These two tragedies have heightened the fear some allergy sufferers already feel when they consume food from take-outs or restaurants, and several have now told HuffPost UK they will never shop in Pret again.
Gemma Evans, 34, from Surrey, is one of them. She says her severe nut allergy isn’t always taken seriously when she eats out, despite the risk of her having a fatal anaphylactic reaction if she consumes contaminated foods.
“It’s like playing Russian roulette. When you have a severe food allergy, every time you order from a menu, you are putting your life in the hands of the kitchen staff,” she says.
“I can predict how seriously an eatery considers allergies from the first moment I tell a member of staff about it. If they seem indifferent or impatient, I walk straight back out the door.”
Evans always carries two adrenaline auto-injector pens, antihistamines and an inhaler with her, but having a reaction when dining out is still frightening. More worrying still is the fact it has happened on multiple occasions after kitchen staff told her their dishes were nut-free.
“Later, it would often transpire that there was either a mistake in the kitchen or some kind of accidental cross-contamination, or sometimes the staff would continue to deny the dish contained any nuts despite my allergic reaction,” she explains.
On one occasion, Evans reminded a waitress of her nut allergy when a salad arrived at the table coated in pine nuts. She claims the waitress took the dish away, but when it returned, there was clear “pine nut dust” where the contaminated ingredient had simply been taken away. “It continues to amaze me how some staff don’t understand the dangers of contamination,” she says.
Jo Keeling, a 43-year-old former police officer from Bournemouth, was forced to retire from her job early due to her severe allergies to nuts and latex. Like Evans, she has witnessed restaurant and cafe staff casually removing allergens from food, rather than creating new dishes. She always phones ahead when eating at new places to try to gauge if they are “allergy aware” or not.
“I have to say, chain restaurants were usually much better so it threw me when the inquest took place and I learnt of Pret’s actions, or should I say inaction,” she says. “I can understand why people are reluctant to eat out. However, I have come to the conclusion that life is for living and I have to take a leap of faith in restauranteurs. As long I stay vigilant, ask the questions and have reassurance that they have fully understood the consequences then I will continue to eat out in the restaurants I feel safe in.”
For Shafali Talisa Arya, a 26-year-old PhD researcher from London, the biggest worry is travelling on a plane with her severe allergy to nuts and some fruits. She had always been cautious when travelling in the past, but the recent news has raised her concerns “times ten”. Going forward, she’s decided to make packed lunches if she’s going on a plane, because she no longer trusts food at airports.
She recalls an incident two years ago when she reminded a member of check-in staff about her requirements for the flight, to which they replied: “Why are you travelling if you’ve got such severe allergies anyway?”
“I thought it was so discriminatory. It makes you very cautious about buying something at the airport and then eating it on a flight, because if that’s the attitude of people on the ground level, I hate to think what the attitude of in-flight staff would be,” she says.
“Needless to say I was very, very cautious about what I ate before I got on that flight and once on the flight I went eight hours without eating anything because I just couldn’t trust the food.”
For adults with food allergies, it’s stressful enough trying to convey the severity of their own condition to others. But parents like Edel Mairs – whose six-year-old son is allergic to nuts, eggs and kiwi – face the additional challenge of trying to keep their children safe, when they may not always be by their side. The mum, who lives near Belfast in Northern Ireland, believes it’s not just businesses that need to take allergies more seriously, but other members of the public.
“The fact that something so serious is still not accepted as real, that it’s attention seeking, fussy eating or me just being overprotective – frankly, it disgusts me. I’ve seen my child have a reaction and it is terrifying,” she says. “For people to doubt that, to fail to provide allergy warnings or ingredients lists, to ignore the no nut policy at my son’s school as ‘it doesn’t affect their child’ is shameful.”
“I was anxious before, but the coverage [of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse’s death] has made me a lot more anxious.”
Following the inquest into Natasha Ednan-Laperouse’s death, Pret A Manger has announced that full ingredient labelling will be introduced to all products that are freshly made in its shop kitchens from November, and will be “rolled out to all UK shops as quickly as possible”. The labels will list all ingredients, including allergens.
In the meantime, Pret said it will ensure that within the coming weeks:
- Prominent allergen warning stickers are placed on all individual freshly made products.
- Additional allergen warning signs are displayed in shops.
- Full ingredient information, including allergens, for all products is available online and in shops.
In a statement Clive Schlee, Pret Chief Executive, said: “I want to say again how deeply sorry we are for the loss of Natasha. I said we would learn from this tragedy and ensure meaningful changes happen. I hope these measures set us on course to drive change in the industry so people with allergies are as protected and informed as possible. Nothing is more important to Pret right now.”
Evans, Arya and Keeling all said that they will be avoiding Pret in the future.
“I’ll never go in there again,” Evans said. “Natasha died two years ago. The lack of speed at which Pret have addressed the labelling issue smacks of arrogance. I hope this devastating case can create lasting change by showing the government how a change to food labelling laws is needed.”