• Ali

What you don't know about avoiding allergens


As someone who has to avoid gluten, I'm very grateful for allergen labelling.

But the widespread controversy about the Pret A Manger sandwich where a girl died from a reaction to unlisted sesame has prompted widespread opinion, some based on supposition rather than fact.

How many allergens are in this sandwich?

Let me tell you what it's like to live with a medical food restriction. Firstly, I have absolutely no choice in the matter. It is not the same as going on a Keto diet or deciding to avoid meat. This is not a judgement on those reasons, which may be well-founded, but it is not the same as having a medical condition. Accidental consumption of a tiny amount of the food you're avoiding will not induce a physical reaction.

My own reaction to the food I must avoid is awful but not immediately life-threatening. By comparison with those who go into anaphylactic shock, I am lucky.

But the reaction I get is hideous and therefore enough for me to go to great lengths to avoid gluten. I would never, ever risk consuming something I wasn't sure was gluten-free.

Because of this, I sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to ensure I don't accidentally eat gluten.

The food looks great but I probably can't have it (& won't just in case).

Sometimes, however, I encounter situations where anyone could reasonably expect the food to be gluten-free and it isn't.

Example scenarios:

  • The packaged, fully wrapped item on the supermarket shelf that doesn't list gluten but then has a product recall for failing to state barley as an ingredient.

  • The gluten-free curry being made where someone dunks their (normal) bread into the sauce before the curry is served.

  • The knife that's been used to butter sandwiches and is then used for the gluten-free ones.

  • The restaurant that insists the dish is gluten-free (despite repeated interrogation) and then realises they've made an error.

These instances have happened to me, two as a result of cross contamination from people who should know better (but think if I don't know what they've done it won't matter). I challenge anyone to tell me I could prevent these scenarios. Sure, I can learn from them, but there are always new situations around the corner. Most I avoid. Some slip under the radar. Please don't blame me if (despite all efforts to prevent a problem) something goes wrong.

Unless you have a medical condition that means you have to avoid a particular food or allergen, it can be very easy to think you know how you'd behave if it were you.

But life isn't that simple. The ignorant comments I've seen about the poor girl who died from the Pret sandwich are incredibly disappointing. Let's go through them:

"I would have made my own sandwich at home and taken it on the plane."

This sounds sensible, doesn't it? But it doesn't allow for the fact that you have to buy the bread to make the sandwich and that bread could contain sesame if it's not listed. And don't forget that product recall I mentioned earlier. We can't always rely on allergen labelling to be accurate.

"Why don't people take more responsibility for themselves? Millions of people eat Pret sandwiches every day and they're ok."

Oh my goodness. I challenge this person to say this to a sesame or nut allergy sufferer. The vast majority of people on this planet will never go into anaphylactic shock but for those that do (and carry an EpiPen with them) it's desperately important they get the information they need.

"The girl shouldn't have flown with that al