A coroner has expressed concern that reduced allergen labelling requirements for shop-made food may be being used by bigger businesses “to get around regulations”.
Dr Sean Cummings spoke out at an inquest into the death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, 15, who collapsed on a British Airways flight from London to Nice in July 2016 after suffering a fatal reaction to a Pret A Manger sandwich.
She had been on her way to a four-day break in France with her father and best friend when she bought an artichoke, olive and tapenade baguette as they passed through Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5.
Hillingdon Council food safety officer Bridget Saunders told the inquest she had found no issues with the food labelling and allergy information during an inspection of the Pret branch in February 2016.
Under EU regulations, food companies are required to warn customers about allergy risks either on signs and packaging or orally, usually meaning they are told to inquire themselves. Pret chose to deliver allergy information orally and was supposed to have stickers within fridges telling customers to ask staff members for details.
The inquest at West London Coroner’s Court has heard that food safety regulations allow businesses which produce food on site to provide reduced allergen labelling compared with factory-made products.
Saunders said: “I think the distinction was made really to deal with small, independent high street premises which perhaps prepare food on site and put it into a bag to sell to customers coming in.”
She added: “The regulations make no distinction with Pret, with their huge turnover.”
Dr Cummings said: “It seems a little strange a local sandwich shop could benefit from that regulation but an organisation that sells 218 million items (a year) should also benefit from that regulation.”
“Yes, I would agree,” said the witness.
The coroner continued: “A cynic might think it was almost a device to get around regulations relating to identifying food allergens.”
Saunders seemed emotional as she addressed Natasha’s family, telling them: “I’m a food safety officer.
“My job is to ensure food outside the home is safe.
“I visited Pret A Manger five months before your daughter died.
“My opinion is there is a problem. I wouldn’t like to speculate what the problem is, that’s the role of the inquest.
“My job is to enforce the law as it stands and I did that five months before your daughter died.”
The teenager suffered from numerous allergies and reacted badly to sesame seeds “hidden” in the bread, which caused her throat to tighten and vicious red hives to flare up across her midriff, eventually triggering cardiac arrest.
Two epipens were jabbed into her legs, but the symptoms did not abate and she was declared dead the same day at a hospital in Nice.
British Airways cabin crew were questioned over their response after the inquest heard that the on-board defibrillator was not used in-flight.
Mario Ballestri, who helped junior doctor Thomas Pearson-Jones as he performed CPR on Natasha, said it would have been too dangerous to get the device from the other end of the aircraft when she went into cardiac arrest minutes before landing.
Head of cabin crew John Harris was also asked why BA staff had not got the defibrillator.
Natasha’s mother, Tanya, wept in court and was comforted by other family members as Harris said: “Without sounding harsh, the coverage of doors takes priority.”
He explained that it was a formal requirement of his training to ensure cabin crew were in position on landing so they could get passengers off the aircraft in case of an emergency.
“There were only five cabin crew on that particular flight and the aircraft had four sets of doors, totalling eight doors, and one cabin crew member was out of action.
“So we literally had the minimum number of crew to cover those doors,” he said.
The inquest heard that a defibrillator was used on Natasha after landing when Nice paramedics arrived.
The inquest is due to last until Friday