Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, 15, who died after eating a baguette containing sesame from Pret a Manger (Picture from The Guardian)
This is a heartbreaking, shocking and utterly preventable tragedy. Unfortunately it is not the first story of its type. A teenage girl, looking forward to a family holiday, grabs a baguette from an airport Pret a Manger before boarding a plane, unaware that it contains sesame. She becomes seriously ill on the plane and dies in hospital in Nice.
My son has already posted a long Twitter thread about this. He has a personal interest; he has a couple of life-threatening allergies of his own and recently had to spend a day in hospital abroad after falling foul of unclear labelling. We have travelled with him on family holidays, frequently having to explain that milk protein allergy is life-threatening, and not the same thing at all as lactose intolerance. The volume of press coverage given to clean eating and allergy/intolerance of certain foods, not all of it scientifically robust, has only added to the confusion. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Sometimes avoiding a particular food is a personal preference, and many a restauranteur has told a tale of someone who insisted on almond milk only to pig out on cheesecake from the sweet trolley. But for a small but significant minority, it is literally a matter of life and death.
There are countries – Austria happens to be one – where there is a clear, straightforward legal requirement to list all potentially dangerous allergens on any prepared foods offered for sale. It doesn’t guarantee complete safety but it certainly helps. A great deal depends not only on the system in place but on the training and commitment of staff. Many fast food outlets are manned by a rapid turnover of casual staff who may rarely see a line manager. Requests to see a printed list of all potential allergens may be met with bafflement, delays and rolled eyes from everyone behind the customer in the queue. There is a lingering perception that people who mention allergies are narcissistic snowflakes wasting everyone’s time, and a good cheese sarnie never did anyone any harm. They are treated as a nuisance rather than customers to whom the retailer has a duty of care.
At this time of year thousands of young people will be going through Freshers Week, navigating social life without parental supervision for the first time. They may be anxious and eager to please, or distracted, excited, and rather short on sleep. Keeping safe with a severe allergy requires concentration and planning. I can imagine the feelings of their parents as they read a story like this.
It is not elitist to explain that eating a certain food could kill you. It may be inconvenient, but far more so for the sufferer than for those having to deal with it. Please let us work together to create a climate where no young person should feel embarrassed to ask for the guidance they need to eat safely and stay well. Retailers need to realise that systems need to be robust enough to withstand outsourcing and the gig economy, and make sure their staff, however temporary and lowly, know how to keep their customers safe. It is a tragedy when any young person with their life before them dies needlessly. It can, and should, be prevented whenever humanly possible.