It was a crucial sentence in the coroner’s verdict, but one that articulated perfectly the legal loophole which we had come to blame for the death of our 15-year-old daughter.
“There was no specific allergen information on the baguette packaging… and Natasha was reassured by that.”
In fact, Natasha was more than reassured. She was elated that she had found her favourite ingredients - olives and artichokes - in what she considered an allergen-free sandwich at a Pret a Manger store in Heathrow Airport. As has been well documented, once aboard the BA flight to Nice Natasha suffered an anaphylactic reaction to the hidden sesame seeds, baked into the dough of the baguette, and died later that day.
In the days, weeks, months and, yes, the two years after her death until the inquest, we read, and read again, the food regulations that allowed pre-packaged food to be sold without allergen labelling.
We could understand that if you buy a sandwich from a local deli or café, where it is made in front of you, then allergen labelling is not required.
But we just could not understand how a giant high street chain like Pret could wrap up tens of thousands of sandwiches in cellophane and printed cardboard rings, yet have no legal duty to name the allergens.
The coroner, Dr Séan Cummings, agreed. As he made his directive to environment secretary Michael Gove, he stated explicitly: “In my opinion there is a risk that future deaths could occur unless action is taken.”
Within days, if belatedly, Pret’s chief executive Clive Schlee pledged that the company would be in the vanguard of serious change, and that it would be listing all ingredients and allergens on its packaging by the end of 2019. We await confirmation.
Last month Michael Gove, who has been good to his word since our first meeting, announced a consultation on a new law - Natasha’s Law - to prevent more needless deaths like our daughter’s.
Over the past few decades the contamination of food with bugs and bacteria like salmonella, listeria, e.coli and norovirus has been the industry’s ‘public enemy number one’. Food allergies, the newer and less understood enemy, have been largely dismissed or ignored.
But the numbers of people with allergies can no longer be ignored. There are now two million in the UK; there are rising numbers of children who are born every year with food allergies and there are increasing levels of adults with no allergic history suddenly becoming anaphylactic. This rise is on an unprecedented scale and science has no idea why. We can, however, help reduce the risk of people suffering severe anaphylaxis with proper labelling.
Research from Mintel has found that almost half (48%) of Brits are unsure whether or not allergen labels are clear, and a further 15% have no confidence in them at all. Sixty-seven per cent of young people (aged 16 to 24) with a food allergy reported being aware of the legal requirements of food businesses to provide allergen information, but only 14% said they felt confident to ask for it and 14% reported not feeling confident at all.
Responsibility to protect
Some in the food industry have been arguing that full labelling will only increase the potential for “human error”, while increasing the cost burden to operators. While human error will always exist, it cannot be an excuse to do nothing when the lack of clear labelling is far more dangerous.
On the cost burden (which the evidence suggests is small), all we can say is that profits should never come before the lives of customers. Those who sell foods, which can be poisonous to many people, have a responsibility to protect and inform customers.
Eating habits and consumers’ approach to what they are eating are shifting at speed, and consumers are demanding more clarity, honesty and transparency. They demand to know what is in their food - not just the 14 “named” allergens, but all the other allergens, and the sugars, fats and additives too.
We believe the time has come for full information and transparency about what is in our food. To do otherwise, we believe, would be simply a matter of delaying the inevitable.
History shows that change for the better often only comes following tragedy. We are now hoping that, in the wake of Natasha’s death, the food industry will step up to the mark and support our call for full ingredient and allergen labelling.
Nothing can ever bring our Natasha back, and nothing will ever relieve the pain we feel every minute of every day, but we are determined that some good will come of her death.