Ten days ago the results of the inquest into the death of Owen Carey from eating chicken which had been marinated in buttermilk were all over the front pages – and totally right that they should have been. (Image from the PA from a family handout)
Indeed the only tiny glimmer of a silver lining to yet another death from anaphylaxis to a food is that such deaths are now always front page news. And this means that hundreds of thousands of people who knew nothing about allergy come to have at least some understanding about how serious the condition really is.
So what new ‘lessons are to be learned’ from this latest case?
Well, the most obvious is the one that is being addressed by the calls for stricter allergen labelling in restaurants – or at least some more efficient way of identifying allergens in restaurant meals.
The best suggestion I have heard to date is a bit of software that would, on a tablet, light up every dish that contained any specific allergen when that allergen key was pressed. ‘Devices’ and software are now so cheap that even small outlets could run to this. Of course, it does depend on the information being input correctly. But – if one person only was in charge of inputting the information and if they had received at least some allergen training – and if the allergens were highlighted on the original packs as by law they need to be…. There certainly would be a great deal better a chance that the information delivered would be accurate than if you are dependent on a server with half an hour’s training in allergy.
And of course that remains issue – training. Training of front of house staff and training of kitchen staff. And given that even training in basic hygiene is sparse for most food operatives, and that their grasp of English is often limited, in depth training in a complicated subject like allergy is always going to be difficult
But if the only message that comes through from that training is that food allergy is serious and could kill the person you are serving, then that is a major step forward. No one working in or running an eatery, unless they are psychopathic, actually wants to kill their customers. So understanding that feeding them a food to which they are allergic could actually do that is crucial – which is where the front page headlines are useful.
Eatery staff also, obviously, need to be able to access accurate information once they have been alerted to the danger, but that is a more manageable problem.
Of course it also depends on the allergy sufferer telling the eatery about their allergens and being vigilant in checking and confirming that what they are eating is safe. But at the moment, as Owen’s and many other cases have shown, even when you do tell, check and confirm, you can still be served a food that contains your allergen.
The other issue for the allergy sufferer, not the food service industry, is the possible delay in a reaction. We have all been taught that allergic reactions to foods are instant – and in most case they are. But not always. In Owen’s case, although he had some reaction when he ate the chicken, it was relatively mild, only reaching its full, lethal strength 45 minutes later. So you cannot afford to ignore a mild reaction.
And…….. if you have a serious allergy ALWAYS carry your medication. On the day he died, Owen had forgotten his Epipen…..
A more proactive attitude needed from the food industry
Like Pret a Manger before them, Byron Burger do not seem to have come out of the case with flying colours. Doing the minimum to remain compliant with existing regulations is definitely no longer enough. There are no shortage of ideas as to how eating out can be made safer – but the industry, and the government, needs to get actively behind them.
As the incidence of serious food allergy continues to increase (we are nearly up to 10% of children suffering from the condition now) this problem is only going to get worse. And unless industry and government get seriously on the case, deaths are going to continue to occur.
But it is possible. They did it with seat belts – they did it with salt reduction. Now is the time to to get to grips with managing food allergy.
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