There is absolutely nothing good about a teenage girl dying as a result of an allergic reaction. But the massive coverage resulting from the inquest into Natasha’s death has at least brought the issue of severe allergies to the forefront of everyone’s minds – and that is good.
However, what is totally not good is that Natasha only died because Pret was (and is still) stretching the 2014 Food Regulations to a place where they were never intended to go.
For years now, all packaged foods sold through retail outlets have had to carry full ingredients labelling. This includes having any of the 14 major allergens that they contain (of which sesame is one) highlighted in bold or italics.
However, in 2014 the regulations were expanded to cover all foods sold loose, without packaging, foods that are wrapped on site and all foods sold through the food service industry whether in a works canteen, a five star restaurant, a hospital, a school, a café or a stand at a football ground.
While the bigger operators were able to incorporate allergen/ingredient information into their systems relatively easily it was realised from the start that requiring that small operators (who make up the majority of the food service industry) should ingredient label every single item they sold would be so onerous a burden that it would effectively put many of them out of business.
A compromise solution was therefore adopted, exempting small outlets from labelling every item of food and allowing them to use fridge stickers, notices or word of mouth to tell customers about allergens. While viable, this solution was always going to be risky as it depended on those outlets understanding the dangers their food might present for allergic customers and being diligent in communicating that danger.
When most of the food is made in front of the customer as it is in most small cafés, that is probably just about workable. However, extending that exemption to a chain that served thousands of products that were most emphatically not made in front of the customer was ludicrous. Stickers on fridges or notices to ‘ask the staff about allergens’ in a heaving high street Pret outlet were never going to provide the kind of reliable information that allergic customers need.
Pret sandwiches and baguettes are retail products
Pret sandwiches and baguettes are, in effect, retail products and should carry full ingredients labelling as would any other retail product.
Inexcusably, Pret made used of this loophole, presumably to save themselves the cost of labelling their products.
Far worse though.
The ‘artisan baguette’ that killed Natasha included sesame seeds in the dough. Not sesame on the outside the baguette which would at least have been visible to the wary allergic customer but baked into the bread where they would be totally invisible.
Yet not only did the baguette not carry allergen warnings, it did not even carry a full ingredients list. That a business the size of Pret that sells hundreds of thousands of products a day could show such a criminal lack of allergen awareness is truly shocking.
And despite the massive amount of negative publicity that they have received over the last week, according to a report in the Sun those baguettes are still on sale without any appropriate warnings.
One can only hope that it will not just be allergy sufferers who will give Pret outlets a wide berth in future but many of those who have read the reports and have been shocked by Pret’s callous profit before care attitude.