According to government research, an estimated 2 million people are currently living with food allergies in the UK, and tragically around 10 people die each year as a direct result of food-induced anaphylaxis (a serious allergic reaction).
Some of these deaths could be avoided if pre-packaged food clearly displayed any allergens and verbal communications within restaurants managed to convey to each customer the precise information of any ingredients.
With the food industry still struggling to fully address the scale of this problem it is imperative that you, the customer, know your rights and understand what food outlets and restaurants should be doing to ensure a duty of care is provided and you feel safe when eating out.
What is an Allergen?
An allergen is a substance that causes an allergic reaction. So, a food allergen is a food or an individual food group that can cause often serious and sometimes life-threatening reactions for affected individuals. It is not yet known why food allergies are on the increase, but they are on the rise the world over – within the last decade there has been a 50% increase in allergic reactions that have required hospitalisation.
It is thought that the body overcompensates and sees the harmless proteins in some foods as a threat. The body then releases chemicals to attack the intruding protein which in turn causes an allergic reaction. Anaphylaxis (a serious allergic reaction) is triggered when the immune system goes into overdrive and releases huge amounts of chemicals int the bloodstream to try and combat the presumed threatening protein.
How Should Food Outlets Communicate the Presence of Allergens?
From 2021, the law will state that pre-packed food should have an ingredients list with any allergens emphasised – and for non-prepacked food, for example food sold in a restaurant, the information for every item that contains any of the 14 allergens must be provided.
However, there is no hard and fast rule of how this allergen information should be presented or communicated to customers, just that it should be. As you can imagine verbally discussing the potential allergens in food or relying on information to be correctly transcribed onto chalkboards or printed on menus, leaves far too much room for human error.
The list of allergens is substantial, and there are 14 major allergen groups with the top x5 being common triggers specifically for children. The 14 major allergen groups are:
- Cereals containing gluten
- Sesame Seeds
- Lupin (found in flour)
- Sulphites (found in dried fruit, soft drinks, wine, beer)
It is obvious that ensuring the concise and correct communication of these, in often noisy environments, is an issue which still needs comprehensively addressing. Misinterpreted, misunderstood or simply missing information is all too common. Busy and newly trained waiting staff are often relied upon to communicate this information correctly, but there is often no consistency in how to do this. There is also no guarantee that the correct information will be relayed between the customer, waiting staff and kitchen – and this is where life threatening mistakes can happen.
However, some popular restaurants are now taking steps to use online menus and apps. These allow customers to filter out foods according to their allergy. This is a step in the right direction by helping people to make an informed choice about what they might eat, and what they need to avoid.
Can I Take Steps to Avoid an Allergic Reaction?
If you feel your restaurant or food outlet is not providing visible or verbal comprehensive information on allergens, then speaking directly to the chef is recommended. Hopefully this will put your mind at rest. However, if you are still anxious about what is on offer it may unfortunately be wise to avoid eating there, at least in the interim, until full safeguards are in place at every establishment.
If you think someone is experiencing an allergic reaction for the first time, some of the signs you should watch out for are as follows:
– Swelling of the lips, face, tongue, throat
– Trouble breathing
– Abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea
However, if any of the following symptoms begin to occur, often within minutes of exposure to an allergen, then urgent medical assistance must be sourced as this is potentially a sign of life-threatening anaphylaxis:
– Drop in blood pressure
– A weak but rapid pulse
– Constriction of your airways and a swollen tongue or throat
Allergic Reaction Compensation Claims?
If you feel you, a loved one or a friend has been affected by a food allergen, no matter how minor then you may be able to claim for food allergy compensation if the allergic reaction was caused by negligence.
There are two specific types of compensation that can be awarded in a successful claim, general damages and special damages. General damages relate to compensation for any pain and suffering caused by the allergic relation to the food, and special damages which will cover the reimbursement of any loss of income or expenses you may have incurred or may incur in the future.
Collating information in relation to the incident which caused an allergic food reaction is key. Although at the time of the incident medical assistance will be your priority – but if photographic evidence of the menu can be gathered this will strongly help your case. If the information should have been verbally communicated then having a witness statement, from someone you were dining with, will help build a strong case, especially if they can confirm the allergen information was not verbally communicated. Your medical reports will also be used as part of the evidence as these will detail the incident, the type of allergic reaction you suffered, what medial intervention was given and any other relevant information.
Once you have collated evidence your solicitor can look at proving negligence for your food allergy claim. This is intended to show that the food establishment did not follow regulations and they did not convey to you any of the allergens which were present in the food.
However, remember that the food manufacturer or retailer is in no way responsible for your allergy, but they are responsible for making you aware of any allergens included in the food.
Finally, it is worth noting there is generally a three-year timeframe for you to submit a negligence claim. Therefore, starting your claim as soon as possible whilst your memory, and any potential evidence, is still fresh is recommended.