The inquest, taking place in September, was set up to investigate the details of the death of 15-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse who suffered an allergic reaction after eating a Pret baguette with sesame seeds that were not listed as ingredients.
Ednan-Laperouse collapsed with cardiac arrest on a flight to Nice and subsequently passed away.
Pret was not guilty of any wrongdoing; the law states that operators that prepare sandwiches in a kitchen on-site can sell products without labelling. The inquest highlighted the fact that the company was within the law, but was deemed to have not taken allergen monitoring seriously. In fact, the inquest was told that Pret had received warnings about its baguettes on six previous occassions.
The law notwithstanding, Pret could and should have done better, according to allergen specialist Jacqui McPeake, owner of JACS. “I know the law says small sandwich shops don’t need to have the individual handmade sandwiches made with a label, but Pret a Manger surely is different as a retailer. It is a loop hole in the law,” she says.
“Their duty of care is to provide safe food to the customer from a food hygiene point of view and also from an allergy point of view.”
Since the inquest into Natasha Ednan-Laperouse’s death details have emerged of a second fatality linked to Pret, which occurred in December 2017, when a customer, Celia Marsh, ate a flatbread that was billed as dairy-free but in fact contained dairy. According to Pret this was due to a supplier mislabelling of the product.
It has thrown a welcome spotlight on a vital issue that has not previously been taken seriously, according to McPeake. “I think the fact that [Pret] have known about it six times and nothing happened is a bit worrying to say the least. Previously when people complained about allergy issues they didn’t take it seriously,” she says. “But I think people have realised how scary allergies can be. Sesame seeds can actually kill somebody.”
Following the inquest Clive Schlee, CEO of Pret a Manger, said in a statement that the chain has already worked to improve labelling in the last two years. “We now display declarable allergens for our freshly made products on shelf tickets in front of each item,” he said. “We also have signs in our fridges, on product packaging, and at till points advising customers with allergies to speak with a manager to see our allergen guide.”
But, he added, much more can be done. “We will start trialling new labels which show full ingredients, including allergens, on packaging from next month. This will be rolled out to all UK shops as quickly as possible.”
While government and other authorities debate the correct path ahead Pret has pledged to implement three changes to the way they work immediately. “Prominent allergen warning stickers will be placed on all freshly made products; additional allergen warning signs will be displayed in shops; and full ingredient information, including allergens, for all products will be available online and in shops,” explained Schlee.
Both the company and the family have stated they will look for meaningful change in the future. What might that look like? “They will have to enforce changes, if a cornershop doesn’t produce labels then the people inside that corner shop will have to know exactly what ingredients are in their products, but the bigger chains must have to disclose full allergen disclosure, regardless whether if it is homemade or factory made,” says McPeake.
Besides, as she points out, “Anybody with an allergy will be cautious about eating there now, so they are going to have to do something.”
McPeake says a lack of understanding of allergens is at the heart of the issue. “A person with an allergy will have to check every ingredient on every product, so by not giving the correct information it puts everybody at risk. I don’t think they thought it through,” she says.
Law changes appear to be inevitable. “The government and the Food Standards Agency and everybody else involved will be looking at why this happened and what the loophole was. They have to make it safe for people, this shouldn’t be happening that people die from seasame seeds,” says McPeake. “People should know what is in their food. It is about trust; people with food allergies will go on social media and if they have a good experience – or not – they will shout about it.”
Pret a Manger was launched in 1986 and has since grown to 530 stores across the world in cities, including New York, Paris and Hong Kong. It has made a name for fresh healthy food on the go; most recently it has opened a a number of veggie Pret stores, selling an entirely vegetarian range.