I love Pret. Over more than three decades it’s taken fast-food dining to a whole new level, There are countless food trends it’s helped to take mainstream, from breadless sandwiches to chia seeds to plant-based. Only last month I noticed it was selling small bottles of rosemary water. It’s also taken a more enlightened attitude than most towards food waste and the environment.
But it’s become clear, over the past several weeks, that Pret a Manger has some serious food safety, managerial and PR issues. The tragic death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse has exposed clear weaknesses in its food labelling policies. As the coroner in the enquiry said, Pret has used its “local kitchen” business model to “evade the spirit” of food labelling regulations. This exemption for small enterprises is in itself a potential flaw but a major food organisation should not base its brand credentials on the letter of the law if it risks the lives of its customers. Or how is it a brand?
What’s even worse is that it’s played fast and loose with the regulations - including some ingredients but not others. It’s even boasted in ads about not using labels that “contain lots of boring numbers, dates and symbols”.
Most troubling of all, as FSA chair Heather Hancock told The Grocer in a withering attack on the food safety culture at Pret this week, is the lack of action around incidents and complaints about this same allergen in the 12 months leading up to Natasha’s death. Alarm bells should have been ringing. This should have been escalated to the highest levels - and acted upon. And even after this tragic case emerged, Pret still didn’t change its ways. Only when it started to be slated in the press did it agree to review policies and procedures.
The shamefulness doesn’t end there either. With another death linked to Pret this week, the sandwich chain passed the buck to one of its small suppliers. Not only is this not a defence in law. The cause of death has not even been established. So it’s acting as judge and jury - when it’s Pret that’s in the dock.