In late May, a British restaurant owner was convicted of manslaughter and given six years in jail for knowingly allowing peanut-containing food to be served to a peanut-allergic customer. The victim, Paul Wilson, died as a result.
Allergic Living recently interviewed the lead detective and prosecutors on the case to find out why this case sets a precedent in the U.K., if not the world. Detective inspector Shaun Page, of the North Yorkshire Police in northeast England, says that one of the key points in the conviction of Mohammed Zaman, 52, is that “it is the first time that a restaurant owner has been shown to have a duty of care to his customers.”
“Paul’s death was avoidable and the outcome of this case sends a clear message to those who operate similar businesses that if they choose to operate in such a grossly negligent way, they are liable to prosecution as well as having to live with the potential deadly consequences,” Page said.
Wilson, 38, placed an order at an Indian restaurant in North Yorkshire owned by Zaman – an establishment where he had eaten before. He had specified that his food needed to be free of peanuts due to his severe peanut allergy. The police investigation would show that restaurant staff led Wilson to believe his meal would be safe.
Wilson, who worked in the hospitality industry and was familiar with avoiding his allergens and catering to food-allergic customers, was handed takeout containers that clearly said “no nuts” on the lid and receipt – indicating that it was safe for him to eat – and headed home. Tragically, the chicken tikka masala and onion bhaji he ordered would be his last meal. Wilson’s roommate found him in the bathroom just before midnight, dead from an anaphylactic reaction – the barely touched food still on the kitchen table.
A joint investigation between local police and North Yorkshire Trading Standards revealed that Zaman, who owns six restaurants, was more than $430,000 (USD) in debt. In an effort to cut costs, police confirmed that Zaman had purposely contacted his food supplier to change his ingredients from almond powder to a cheaper ground-nut mix containing peanuts.
“It cost half the price of almond and there was no other reason to use it – it didn’t enhance the food, it was just cheaper,” said prosecutor Richard Wright.
Nor was Wilson the first to suffer from the restaurateur’s swap. Three weeks prior to Wilson’s death, 17-year-old Ruby Scott ordered a chicken dish at another of Zaman’s restaurants. The peanut-allergic teen immediately began reacting, and was given an epinephrine auto-injection and rushed to the hospital, where she recovered.
Despite the teen’s life-threatening reaction and warnings from his food supplier and UK Trading Standards, Page said Zaman “failed to acknowledge” the consequences of using the cheaper ingredient – and continued to put ground peanut-containing nut powder in his dishes. Charges related to the young woman were included on the same indictment as Wilson’s case.
“[Zaman] failed to warn customers, failed to properly train his employees and failed to take any action following a previous serious allergic reaction incident, and so Mr. Wilson died at home from a severe allergic reaction after eating a takeaway meal (from Zaman’s restaurant),” said chief prosecutor Martin Goldman. The jury found Zaman guilty on six food safety offences.
The precedent-setting verdict has drawn international attention. U.S. attorney and food allergy advocate Mary Vargas notes that the “duty of care” message is one that resonates well beyond England’s borders, and says this case should be a “wakeup call” for all restaurant owners.
“In the wake of the Zaman prosecution, conviction, and sentencing, restaurant owners ought to be looking at their policies, practices and how they train their employees to make sure they’ve done their due diligence and that they’re doing what they can to keep all of their customers safe – including customers with food allergies,” Vargas told Allergic Living. She adds that in the U.S., there have been some cases prosecuting those who knowingly exposed food allergic people to their allergen, “but not many.”
Vargas is currently representing clients in a case that also looks at the duty of care – since employees of a Panera café in Massachussetts were warned of a child’s food allergy, yet added about two tablespoons of peanut butter to the 6-year-old’s grilled cheese sandwich. While Panera contends this was an error related to English as a second language, the question again arises as to a restaurant’s responsibility. The girl in this case had an allergic reaction that required an overnight hospital stay.
“When an allergic customer tells a restaurant that they have a food allergy, the restaurant has a legal, ethical, and moral responsibility to take necessary steps to protect that customer,” Vargas said.
Page says that cases like these show that, “restaurants now have to take seriously their customers allergies and ensure that processes to serve safe food are of the highest standard, and this includes the training of staff in allergies.”