Teenager’s Fatal In-Flight Reaction Raises Food Allergy Labeling Loophole

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in Food Allergy, News
Published: September 24, 2018
Natasha Ednan-Laperouse

Read about the findings of the inquest here.

A father’s heart-wrenching testimony was heard on the first day of a British inquest into the death of a 15-year-old girl who died of an anaphylactic reaction suffered during a flight from London to Nice.

In a statement read by his lawyer, Nadim Ednan-Laperouse explained that his daughter Natasha suffered a severe allergic reaction on a British Airways flight on July 17, 2016 after eating an artichoke, olive and tapenade baguette. She purchased and ate the baguette from Pret a Manger at Heathrow Airport shortly before boarding.

Despite receiving two doses of epinephrine, “Natasha desperately looked at me, she said: ‘Daddy, help me, I can’t breathe,’” Ednan-Laperouse said in his statement, according to the BBC.

Natasha’s parents would later discover that the baguette dough contained an ingredient their daughter was allergic to – sesame. (She also had allergies to dairy, nuts and banana.) The father told the inquest that sesame was not listed as an ingredient on the packaging. The label gave “no indication or mention that sesame seeds were present.” He added: “Natasha and I relied on food information and saw no need to ask Pret counter staff if any other information was needed.”

Foods That Don’t Require Allergen Labeling 
According to European regulations, sesame is among the top 14 allergens that have to be listed on “pre-packaged” foods. However, as with North American regulations, the EU offers a loophole for foods that are made and wrapped fresh daily. These are not considered “pre-packaged,” so are not required to be labeled individually for allergens and ingredients. (At Pret stores, an allergen guide is kept, but a customer has to ask for it.)

After boarding the airplane with her dad and best friend, Natasha felt her throat itching and took antihistamines. After about 35 minutes, she began to feel worse, with breathing difficulty and angry red hives on her stomach. The inquest heard that’s when Natasha was rushed to the restroom and Ednan-Laperouse administered the first dose of epinephrine to his daughter.

“We waited a couple of minutes to see how she reacted,” her father recalled in the statement. “She said she couldn’t breathe properly and it was getting worse and urged me to get the second EpiPen right away.”

Airline staff, aided by a recently graduated doctor on board, performed CPR after Natasha suffered cardiac arrest. She was taken to a Nice hospital when the plane landed. As her condition deteriorated, her father put a phone to her ear so her mother and brother could say goodbye.

“The pain and agony of the call was beyond anything I have known,” The Telegraph quoted her father as saying, as her mother wept at the hearing.

The inquest then heard that the girl’s father called his own mother to ask her to visit a Pret a Manger location in West London to look at the sandwich’s ingredients. She did not find an allergen warning or ingredient label that included sesame, so she made inquiries at the counter and was handed information in a folder.

“My mother looked down the list and found that the baguette dough had sesame seed inside it,” the inquest heard. “I was stunned that a big food company like Pret could mislabel a sandwich and this could cause my daughter to die.”

Loophole Tied to Previous Tragedies
This isn’t the first time that lack of allergen labeling has arisen as an issue in the death of an allergic individual.

The Guardian reports similar circumstances in a lawsuit where a Pret location in New York City was involved. Matt David, who is allergic to sesame, suffered a severe anaphylactic reaction after eating a sandwich from Pret in September 2015.

Unlike Canada and Europe, sesame is not regulated under FALCPA, the U.S. labeling law, despite lobbying for the ingredient to be included as a top allergen. In Matt David’s case, a court sided with Pret for following the rules.

In the United States, Canada and Europe, there are variations of laws which require manufacturers to list the top allergens on the labels of packaged foods, but all these laws have exemptions foods that are made in-store and on the premises – like a deli counter or supermarket bakery.

In 2015, those legal loopholes were at the center of a lawsuit filed by a family of an 11-year-old Alabama boy who died of anaphylaxis after eating a cookie from a grocery store’s bakery. Derek Landon Wood ate a chocolate cookie purchased at a Publix supermarket after being assured by a store associate that the cookie did not contain tree nuts. It turned out that the cookie in fact contained walnuts, to which the boy was severely allergic. An undisclosed settlement was reached in this case and it did not go to trial.

More recently, 30-year-old Joanna Salmingo died of anaphylaxis after eating two frozen Japanese mochi balls on Aug. 8 that she purchased from an in-store display at Whole Foods Market in Markham, Ontario. The treat is almost always made of glutinous rice with ice cream on the inside, but the product Joanna purchased at Whole Foods contained one of her allergens – cashew milk as the main ingredient.

The display sticker had a “may contain” warning, but only ring-bound cards listed all ingredients in the mochi balls. Joanna’s brother, Joey Salmingo, is now advocating for better food allergy education. He has managed to persuade Whole Foods to improve labeling at the chain’s in-store mochi displays in the short time since his sister’s death on Aug. 24.

The inquest into the circumstances of Natasha’s death continues at West London Coroner’s Court.

Read more:
Opinion: Anaphylaxis in the Air – What We Learned from Natasha’s Allergy Tragedy
After August Tragedies, Families Work to Increase Food Allergy Education
Label Issue Cited in Florida Teen’s Food Allergy Death