Allergens: insights from an EHP

Published: 13 Jun 2016

In recent prosecution news, the owner of a curry house has been jailed for 6 years following the death of a client who had been served a curry containing peanuts, despite being made aware of the intolerance. Paul Wilson suffered a severe anaphylactic shock after ordering the meal from the Indian Garden restaurant in North Yorkshire.

On the back of this prosecution, Helen Brimelow, CSC environmental health consultant reflects on the impact of allergens on our industry and community:

With responsibility for the allergen law in my previous role I have collected a number of stories of allergen problems. In the UK, it is estimated that 1-2% of adults and 5-8% of children have a food allergy. This is around 2 million people living in the UK with a food allergy which does not include those with food intolerances such as lactose intolerance and coeliac disease.

Allergies are on the increase and scientific research continues to try and find the cause. One research project suggested early administering of antibiotics to children and insufficient outdoor play may explain the increase, other research suggested the policy of avoiding nuts in young children may have exacerbated the nut allergy problem.

One of the most recent stories I was told involves a birthday visit to a well known restaurant chain. The mother ordered gluten free pizza for the two girls as one is gluten intolerant and the other has anaphylactic reactions to gluten. They happily ate their pizzas and ordered another as they were still hungry. At this point the waitress realised she had earlier made a mistake and informed the family that they had been served gluten containing pizza. Both children, aware of their intolerance immediately burst into tears knowing they were going to be violently sick within a very short time. One sister was in hospital overnight and off school for 4 days, the other missed a day of school and was violently sick for the rest of her birthday.

I suspect chefs are knowledgeable about allergens but front of house staff aren’t always as knowledgeable or aware of the implications of a mistake.

Between 1992 and 2002, 10 children under 15 died as a result of a severe food allergy, the majority of which were due to eating outside of the home. Further to this, there were an estimated 4,500 allergic reactions which resulted in hospital admissions. It is likely that there are significant numbers of people whose discomfort goes unreported.

Good training of both front and back of house staff is imperative to ensure staff have a good understanding of the implications of food allergens.