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Pret a Manger sesame seed allergy death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse sees Kent County Council's science team play important role


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In July 2016, Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, 15, and her family, were taking a trip to Nice via Heathrow Airport.

Before the flight, Natasha bought herself an artichoke, olive and tapenade baguette from Pret a Manger.

Natasha Ednan-Laperouse. Picture: family handout
Natasha Ednan-Laperouse. Picture: family handout

She began eating it before the flight but began feeling ill as the plane took off .

Whilst in the air, Natasha suffered a cardiac arrest, and though her father injected her with two EpiPen doses, she succumbed to her condition later that day.

It turned out the baguette had sesame seeds baked into the bread, something Natasha was heavily allergic to.

Due to a loophole in food labelling laws, Natasha was not aware of the hidden ingredient that stopped her young life in its tracks.

Since that day her parents, Nadim and Tanya, have worked tirelessly to campaign for sterner food labelling laws.

Nadim and Tanya Ednan-Laperouse have ran a successful campaign for the law change but thier fight continues. Picture: Yui Mok/PA
Nadim and Tanya Ednan-Laperouse have ran a successful campaign for the law change but thier fight continues. Picture: Yui Mok/PA

They set up Natasha Allergy Research Foundation in memory of their daughter, campaigning for significant change in the standards of food practice and distribution.

On the foundation's website Tanya said: "There was a real lack in this country of funding into allergies.

"There hasn't really been a voice for people living with allergies and certainly there hasn't been enough emphasis on research in this country."

Nadim said: "There was something really wrong with food labelling laws and the way people with allergies were treated by food retailing businesses."

The campaign made it to parliament and by September 2019 and the new law was signed, now commonly known as Natasha’s Law.

It states all pre-packaged food for direct sale (PPDS) must list every ingredient included on the packaging, with those considered as allergens written in bold.

This includes all packaged food for any purchase from supermarkets or cafés and even stretches to takeaways.

Companies had two years to transition to the new law which was implemented on October 31, 2021.

But since the law was implemented, many have struggled to adapt, despite the two-year buffer, and food scientists are unveiling the sheer extent of how this law has been overlooked in its infancy.

There are only four labs in the country that deal with these scientific inquiries and though they are not top secret they are important.

Kent has been home to one of four of these labs since the 1950s and has dealt with scientific inquiries since.

Originally stationed in County Hall, Maidstone, it moved to its permanent home in West Malling more than 20 years ago.

Within the first three month of the law being introduced, Kent County Council’s Scientific Services ran more than 505 tests for the presence of allergens in relation to Trading Standards since October 31, 56 of which failed to meet acceptable standards.

Worse, 19 out of 83 of the products sampled for allergy testing were found to contain undeclared allergen ingredients.

That is equivalent to 23% of tested products failing under the new regulation.

West Malling labs for KCC scientific services Picture: Google Maps
West Malling labs for KCC scientific services Picture: Google Maps

Mark Rolfe is the head of KCC’s Scientific Services and has held his role for six years.

Food testing is one of the roles his team provides and it involves multiple processes, each to determine certain pieces of information.

Mr Rolfe said: “Samples are sent either to know the nutritional content of the food or if it has been contaminated.

"Nutritional content is analysis for the kind of things that you will see on a food label so salt, fat, carbohydrates, that kind of stuff.

"We also do analysis of legal standards so there are some products like pork sausages which need a minimum pork content."

"Contaminant based analysis is where we’re looking for things like heavy metals, mercury, lead, cadmium that kind of heavy metal which has a damaging effect on human health.

"We spend a lot of time testing for toxins like Aflatoxin, which is mould-based, that forms in powder and other kind of granular products so things like peanuts and ground chilli powder.

"There are very tight limits for how much is permissible in food and obviously the big one at the moment is looking for the presence of undeclared allergens.

"We do a whole range of allergen testing including sesame which was obviously the allergy that led to the law change.”

As shown, the transition has been difficult for some to adjust which Mark Rolfe has seen first-hand.

He said: "The law has changed the number of samples we've seen for testing as people are looking to make sure that the products on sale are compliant.

“There are 14 different categories of allergens that are tested for at the labs with one of the categories, nuts, containing another 14 subcategories within that.

"These include things people would commonly recognise like gluten, soya, sesame, fish and milk.

"Some, like gluten, are known to cause ill health and significant discomfort.

"Others, like sesame, can have a catastrophic impact for someone with an allergy to them; even leading to death.”

Local authorities send samples to the labs if there has been a case of someone suffering an allergic reaction.

The authorities would go to the establishment in question and take samples, sending them to the labs for testing.

This is the more common style of sample, which, after the law change, is becoming ever more frequent.

Mr Rolfe said: "We did see a focus on local authorities visiting the kind of premises that were impacted. Samples were taken to ensure businesses both understood the law and are trying to comply.

"The majority of businesses want to do the right thing and they want to help keep their customers safe and keep them coming back every day."

Any samples which fail the lab's tests are reported to the correct authorities such as Kent County Council Trading Standards.

The lab in Kent tests for food allergies. Stock image
The lab in Kent tests for food allergies. Stock image

Food can be home-made or imported in so which authority is told, and what action is taken, varies on the food’s origin.

Mr Rolfe said: "Samples that come from a port health authority, if the food is non-compliant with UK legislation, is not allowed into the country.

"It is either returned to its point of departure or destroyed. Port health control is all about preventing unsafe food entering the UK market at all.

"For a local authority in land, once it's on the market then that local authority has a range of powers to deal with it.

"They could serve an enforcement notice or have products withdrawn from the market if they're looking for deliberate non-compliance.

The process of testing food is vital to keep the public safe from undeclared allergens.

Mark Rolfe, and the rest of the West Malling labs staff, do an important job for businesses and local authorities both in Kent and across the UK.

Especially with the new legislation in place, they hope to prevent any further incidences of fatal allergic reactions in future.

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