/ Food & Drink

Food labelling for allergy sufferers: should companies do more?

The tragic recent death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse following a severe allergic reaction has raised urgent questions about food labelling. Do you think manufacturers should be doing more?

As father to a 10-year old with severe food allergies, it was particularly upsetting to hear of the recent case of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who died after eating a baguette from Pret a Manger.

The sandwich contained sesame, one of 14 known allergens that by law have to be listed on prepackaged foods.

Pret isn’t legally obliged to list the specific ingredients on the products because it serves fresh, handmade food prepared on-site. But, following recommendations made by the acting senior coroner in Natasha’s case, Pret recently announced that it will begin to show full ingredient labelling on all products.

This is a step in the right direction but it’s a shame that it took such a tragedy for them to act, and I’ll still be very wary of letting my daughter eat in its restaurants.

Life-saving labelling

I feel like Pret could have led the way by introducing allergen labelling on packaging a long time ago, even though it wasn’t legally required.

I hope that other similar businesses follow Pret’s belated lead, and would personally urge Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to push for a change in the law.

Currently, businesses such as sandwich shops and cafes can display a generic sign about allergens, directing customers to ask staff for advice. But from personal experience, some of the blank looks and confused answers I’ve received from shop staff do not fill me with confidence.

Allergen attitudes

On many occasions we’ve had to walk out because the risk just isn’t worth it. I would like to see the labelling laws extended to include these types of establishments.

In the meantime, we’ll be sticking to restaurant chains, which are usually the best option for our family, as, in my experience, they generally have good allergen information.

And with the rise of veganism in the UK recently, there’s been a helpful increase in the number of chains offering new products such as dairy-free cheese on pizzas, and improved food information and awareness.

Do you have an allergy and find it hard to eat out, whether that be in cafes or restaurants? Do you think it’s time for a change in the law over allergen labelling?


Thank you for bringing up allergies again Mark.

My husband is allergic to cow’s milk (anaphylactic reaction) and I have a few intolerances so know what a nightmare labelling and dining out can be.

There are no standards for allergens in the food industry. They are probably mentioned somewhere but are presented in a different form everywhere you go.

I have just searched for allergen info from a few well known chains and assume what you see in a restaurant will be similar to what you see on their website.

I really like this one from Gourmet Burger Kitchen that gives an icon for each allergen. Dairy has a milk bottle icon and it is easy to glance down the 2 pages to see everything that contains milk:

This one from Pizza Hut is really hard work. The writing is small, allergens are in bold and you have to read nearly every word on the 9 pages. Allergens will not stand out if reading this in low light.

This one from Hungry Horse is typical of many allergen lists that can spread over many pages and be hard to read especially when shrunk onto an A4 sheet of paper. Finding your food item on the left then finding the right column for the allergen makes ordering hard work.

McDonald’s have gone a step further and list all the ingredients for each product. I like that they state where there may be traces of an allergen that many people will be able to handle so you can make an informed decision. This list could be further improved by listing the allergens separately in the same way as the traces as words in bold can be hard to pick out.

It is interesting you mention improved food information for veganism. I have also noticed a diet choice gets more recognition that a medical necessity.

Food allergies do highlight which restaurants actually cook their own food from scratch and those that just heat up and present food that has been prepared elsewhere.

I would like to see an allergy information standard similar to the one adopted by Gourmet Burger Kitchen across all eateries.

Airlines cater for religious and diet choices but are not very good at medical needs. Their answer is often to give you vegan.

You were about to travel to Italy in your previous convo. How did you get on?

Good to hear.
Have you seen the many dairy free ice creams and deserts on Ocado? They have an amazing range.

This was tragic but compounded, apparently, by buying unlabelled food, an ineffective Epipen and by the unfortunate situation of being on an aircraft away from medical help.
Currently, businesses such as sandwich shops and cafes can display a generic sign about allergens, directing customers to ask staff for advice. But from personal experience, some of the blank looks and confused answers I’ve received from shop staff do not fill me with confidence.

On many occasions we’ve had to walk out because the risk just isn’t worth it.“.

The best action I would have thought. If I ran a small food business I’d be inclined to use a disclaimer, however inconvenient that may seem, because of the serious possible consequences of accidentally making an error.

There was a widely reported death after a child ate food containing undeclared sesame seeds: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/09/pret-has-power-to-stop-more-food-allergy-deaths-says-coroner

Some eateries cover their backsides by stating nearly everything contains an allergen, so there is very little on the menu that could be eaten by anyone suffering from an allergy. I have seen fried chips that contain milk.

Staff do seem to have very little knowledge of allergies. You would be amazed at how many think eggs come from cows. 🐄🥚🥚🥚

Oops – I had not realised that we are in a new Convo and Mark has featured the Pret case in his introduction. Must concentrate in future.

Recent warnings about undeclared allergens in foods can be found on the Food Standards Agency website: https://www.food.gov.uk/news-alerts/search You can sign up to receive alerts by email.

People are dying all the time in bizarre and and tragic ways and I am beginning to wonder if the aiming for nil deaths [as proposed for traffic] and as a general aim are rather hopeful. I cannot see we can guarantee everything in the food sector other than people eat what they are certain of.

Here is some data that gives scale and also raises the interesting point why the problem is significantly lower in Denmark at a third the incidence in the US and USA. Preventing allergies is a very interesting area of research.

Food-induced anaphylaxis

The prevalence of food-induced anaphylaxis varies with the dietary habits of a region. A United States survey reported an annual occurrence of 10.8 cases per 100,000 person years. By extrapolating this data to the entire population of the USA, this suggests approximately 29,000 food-anaphylactic episodes each year, resulting in approximately 2,000 hospitalizations and 150 deaths. Similar findings have been reported in the United Kingdom and France. Food allergy is reported to cause over one-half of all severe anaphylactic episodes in Italian children treated in emergency departments and for one-third to one-half of anaphylaxis cases treated in emergency departments in North America, Europe and Australia. It is thought to be less common in non-Westernized countries. A study in Denmark reported a prevalence of 3.2 cases of food anaphylaxis per 100,000 inhabitants per year with a fatality rate of approximately 5%.

Risk factors for food anaphylaxis include asthma and previous allergic reactions to the causative food.
Food-associated, exercise-induced anaphylaxis

This is more common in females, and over 60% of cases occur in individuals less than 30 years of age. Patients sometimes have a history of reacting to the food when younger and usually have positive skin tests to the food that provokes their anaphylaxis.”

In the above I meant UK and USA.

This in depth research though elderly does have some interesting points and is worth reading particularly the odds and the relationship to asthma.

Bruce says:
12 October 2018

they should be labelled properly

I am struggling to find out what post-harvest treatment is used in so-called organic products marketed under the Duchy organic brand. The Soil Association only covers growing of crops not what is done to them subsequently. Many people with sulphite intolerance cannot tolerate vinegar which is frequently used to treat flour. That then gives me eczema. The general public needs to know everything that is in or has been applied to their food whether a raw ingredient or processed item.

I have bowel disease (IBD/IBS) and seem to have an intolerance to garlic. Food manufacturers and restaurants seem to be throwing garlic in to almost everything, even unlikely things, probably as a flavour enhancer but it is very difficult to know for sure if garlic has been included as it is not always listed. It would be very helpful if it became compulsory to list all ingredients.

All shops which sell food should be compelled to list allergens on their products, regardless of where they are prepared..
Pret-a-Mourir Manger should be re-named Pret-a-Mourir!

I’m allergic to chilli, fortunately not a life threatening allergy. There is no requirement to list chilli but I find most eateries are very helpful and knowledgeable. Once had a meal with chilli. Noticed on the first mouthful and stopped eating. OK for me but not for anyone with a severe allergy. It’s not practical to list evey possible allergen but restaurants should know what is in their food.

Mike says:
19 October 2018

I’m allergic to capsicum (So chili, paprika, bell peppers, and Cayenne). This can be a real problem both in restaurants and at the supermarket because manufacturers are allowed to use the word spices and then not list them. Emailing suppliers often gets ignored. I know there are secret recipes that suppliers want to protect but i think we should have a legal right to know EXACTLY what we are eating and information should be available on request.

Kimberley KR says:
25 October 2018

Hi, I have a reaction to bell peppers so I’m doing some work to raise awareness. You might want to take a look and share to help make people, restaurants aware of capsicums as an allergen. Kind regards Kim https://www.instagram.com/inspirebykim/

Kimberley KR says:
25 October 2018

Hi, I have a reaction to bell peppers so I’m doing some work to raise awareness. You might want to take a look and share to help make people, restaurants aware of capsicums as an allergen. Kind regards Kim
Inspire by Kim on Instagram

My mum has a bad allergy to pineapple and I’m allergic to ginger, neither is 1 of the 14 allergens that have to be highlighted. You just have to check things yourself and if in doubt after speaking with staff choose something else in restaurants or go somewhere else. I don’t think laws are the way to go.

It’s not just food! Lactose is a common binder in the manufacture of medicinal pills. My wife is allergic to lactose and she is on many medications for various ailments. Her doctor is sympathetic but finds it difficult to prescribe lactose-free medication. In some instances, the same prescription medication is produced with and without lactose. She has had to find a helpful chemist (Boots) that was willing and able to source lactose-free pills from particular manufacturers. Nevertheless, there is still one of her pills that cannot be sourced lactose-free. She has to be provided with expensive liquid medicine. Lactose is a common allergy and surely pill manufacturers should be discouraged from using it, as obviously there are alternative binders.

Lactose intolerance is fairly common in adults: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/lactose-intolerance/ Unlike serious allergies to nuts, dairy products, etc. it is not an allergy, but can be unpleasant for those affected. As OldDerbeian says, lactose is commonly used in pills, and there is no reason why the manufacturers could not switch to alternatives that will not cause problems for anyone.

Sorry, I have to disagree with you there wavechange and had a similar disagreement with our previous chemist.

Your link points to lactose intolerance which is what I have. My husband on the other hand has an anaphylactic reaction similar to peanuts, his throat constricts, he starts choking and has trouble breathing, so an allergy. He has an epi-pen that he has luckily never had to use as we are very careful with what he consumes. The bigger the dose of dairy, the worse the effects.

I went through the same as OldDerbeian 10 years ago trying to source non-lactose meds, writing to pharmaceutical companies asking if there were non-lactose versions, then getting the doctor to prescribe them rather than a generic name that covered whatever the chemist sourced. If they hear from enough people with the same problem, maybe they will rethink their bulking agents.

Like OldDerbeian, our current local Boots chemist is very good and sources non-lactose wherever possible.

I’m always happy to learn, Alfa, and I wonder if the problem is traces of milk proteins in lactose, which is normally produced from milk.

I am strongly in favour of removal of anything that could cause problems from all medicines and there is nothing special about the disaccharide lactose that makes it an essential choice. Manufacturers that use lactose deserve to be asked why they are compromising the health of some members of the public.

Information about non-active components (excipients) can, as you probably know, be found in the Medicines Compendium: https://www.medicines.org.uk/emc

Happy to educate wavechange 🙂

Not sure what causes his problem, but he can have goat and sheep products, so still enjoys cheese and more recently goat’s butter. We both use oat milk for everyday drinking although I can have the odd coffee with milk out and not suffer.

He has to be careful with anything that says it is made with sheep or goat’s cheese as most catering cheese contains cow’s cheese.

It should be illegal to state goat or sheep cheese when it contains cow’s milk.

Slightly unrelated, but today I found a stick in my Pret Porridge… they’re sending me a £10 voucher as an apology and looking into how it happened.

I won’t make any jokes about giving them stick.

I have just watched Watchdog who have been talking about allergens in supermarket products produced in-store.

Currently, anything prepared in-store doesn’t have to have ingredients listed so we just don’t buy them. As in the program, ingredient info is supposed to be available, but with staff untrained in allergies and lists often hard to find, we don’t bother asking.

Well done Sainsbury’s who are going to print detailed allergens info on all bakery labels. Deli counter products also need prominent labelling.

Customers shouldn’t be made to feel a nuisance for having to ask what is in products.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

If anyone is interested, the Food Standards Agency is asking for input for:
Consultation on the provision of precautionary allergen labelling and precautionary allergen information, such as ‘may contain’ on many types of food sold in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales.

The closing date is 14th March 2022, so only a few days left if you have anything to contribute.


Thanks Alfa. Although I don’t suffer from food intolerances or allergies I do know how difficult it can be for those who do.