Celia Gareth

The coroner’s report into Celia Marsh’s death was published in December 

Food bosses have backed calls for new allergy laws to “help save lives” in the wake of a recent coroner’s report into the death of Celia Marsh after she ate a Pret a Manger sandwich.

The support came in an open letter signed by 11 of the industry’s most powerful figures, including the CEOs of Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons.

It was sent to officials including No 10 chief of staff Liam Booth-Smith, health secretary Steve Barclay, and Food Standards Agency chair Susan Jebb, as well as leading trade associations like the FDF.

In the letter, businesses gave their support to two key findings from the official report that investigated Marsh’s death after she ate a ‘vegan’ wrap contaminated with milk protein.

The first is a more rigorous approach to precautionary allergy labelling such as ‘free-from’. The coroner described these as “potentially misleading” given they imply the absence of a particular allergen.

Food bosses said they agreed with the coroner’s conclusion that there must be a more robust system to confirm the absence of the relevant allergen, with an FSA consultation taking place into the changes required.

“The FSA now needs to make a clear decision on thresholds and a strong recommendation to ministers”, it said. “This would provide sellers of food with an absolute definition of how much of a specific allergen pre-packed food could safely contain before being labelled as free of that allergen.”

They said the current system did not give allergen sufferers confidence in what they could buy. “That is a double whammy of lost sales for businesses and a restriction in choice for shoppers.”

The FSA is currently reviewing the international guidelines for allergen thresholds and told the Grocer this is due to be completed by the end of 2023. This will then feed into the proposed consultation on a system for precautionary allergen labelling.

“We are determined to improve the provision of allergy information to ensure it keeps consumers safe without unnecessarily limiting their food choices,” said Ben Rayner, FSA team leader for food hypersensitivity.

“We have set out plans to standardise the use of precautionary allergen labelling, help businesses manage allergens effectively, and drive up practices in the non pre-packed sector.”

The second finding to receive support was a “robust system” for the rapid reporting of fatal and near fatal severe allergic reactions. Marsh’s death in 2017, like many serious anaphylaxis incidents, was not immediately reported either to Pret a Manger or the relevant authorities.

“This not only posed a risk to customers but also impacted the investigation and learnings from Mrs Marsh’s death,” said the letter.

It called on the UK to implement mandatory reporting of food-related anaphylaxis – like exists for infectious diseases – to ensure not only a more rapid and accurate investigation of cases, “but also allow more rapid action to be taken by food businesses if a valid concern is identified”.

This system would require the reporting of cases of anaphylaxis by medical staff, and would therefore likely come under the remit of the health department. 

“We believe, taken together, these two actions could help save lives and build greater trust in the UK food industry for people with food allergies,” the letter concluded.

The letter was organised by Natasha’s Foundation, set up by Nadim and Tanya Ednan-Laperouse after their 15-year-old daughter Natasha died from anaphylaxis in 2016 after eating a baguette containing sesame.

“We are delighted that the call for real change following Celia Marsh’s tragic and avoidable death is supported by many of the country’s biggest food businesses,” said Nadim Ednan-Laperouse.

“It’s now over to ministers, health chiefs and the FSA to do the right thing by the three million people in this country living with food allergies and implement the coroner’s recommendations.”

Celia Marsh’s family said: “We welcome the support of leading food businesses for robust precautionary allergen labelling and a national register of mandatory reporting of fatal and near fatal anaphylactic reactions.

“These measures would make the world a safer place for allergy sufferers like our beloved mum and wife.”

The letter was signed by:

Nadim and Tanya Ednan-Laperouse, co-founders, Natasha Allergy Research Foundation

James Bailey, executive director, Waitrose

Pano Christou, CEO, Pret a Manger

Rosin Currie, CEO, Greggs

Mike Edwards, CEO, Bakkavor Group

Matt Hood, MD, Coop Food

David Potts, CEO, Morrisons

Simon Roberts, CEO, Sainsbury’s

Andrew Selley, CEO, Bidfood

Louise Stigant, MD, Mondelez UK

Alex Freudmann, MD, Marks & Spencer Food

Jason Tarry, CEO, Tesco UK & ROI

The letter was sent to:

Liam Booth-Smith, No 10 chief of staff

Tom D’Silva, No 10 business relations lead

Meera Vadher, No 10 Defra policy lead

Steve Barclay MP, health secretary

Helen Whately MP, health minister

Prof Susan Jebb, chairman, FSA

Jenny Harries, CEO, UK Health Security Agency

Daniel Ross, CEO, Royal College of Pathologists

Helen Dickinson, CEO, BRC

Kate Nicholls, CEO, UKHospitality

Karen Betts, CEO, FDF