“It’s a tragedy, and I hoped that my case would have been the wakeup call to Pret a Manger,” New Yorker David Matt says in a phone call with Allergic Living.
Matt, 34, unsuccessfully sued the giant global sandwich chain after having a life-threatening reaction in the fall of 2015. He describes “feeling completely devastated” as he learned in a local newspaper about the late September inquest into the 2016 death of 15-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse. She’d suffered a catastrophic allergic reaction to a baguette sandwich from Pret a Manger at England’s Heathrow airport.
The details were eerily familiar to the father of one – Natasha’s ultimately fatal reaction was triggered by sesame in the bread of her sandwich, but nothing on the ingredient label suggested the presence of this food, one of her allergens. Natasha’s reaction had the added difficulty of occurring on a flight from London to France.
During Natasha’s inquest, it came to light that the gourmet sandwich chain, had a log of 21 reported allergic reactions in the year before the teen’s death. Of those cases, nine involved sesame. And Matt, who has been allergic to sesame and peanut since he was a small child, is likely part of that statistic.
“As a business, they should be completely ashamed and embarrassed that they let something like this happen after multiple outcries that could have easily saved this girl’s life,” he says.
On Sept. 21, 2015, slightly less than a year before Natasha’s death, Matt purchased an “avocado and roasted corn salsa flatbread” sandwich from a Pret a Manger location near Times Square. He can’t recall whether he spoke to an employee about the ingredients in the sandwich, but the item wasn’t labeled to say it contained sesame. In the U.S., sesame is still not considered a top allergen, and doesn’t have to be labeled under FALCPA, the allergen labeling law.
After just three bites of his flatbread sandwich, Matt started to experience symptoms of an allergic reaction: “I broke out in hives immediately and my left eye was beginning to swell.” Then things took a turn for the dangerous, and he did not have his auto-injectors with him that day.
“There was a tingling sensation in the back of my throat, which turned into difficulty breathing. At that point, I rushed myself to the emergency room.” He received epinephrine at the hospital, where he fortunately recovered.
In 2016, Matt filed a lawsuit against Pret a Manger and bakery supplier Damascus Bakery. According to court documents, his case was dismissed because “sesame is not considered to be a major food allergen [in the United States], it cannot be said that Pret a Manger misbranded or falsely labeled its sandwich.”
The U.S., Europe and Canada have their own variations of laws that require manufacturers to list specified top allergens on the labels of packaged foods. But all these laws have exemptions for foods that are prepared “fresh,” especially on the premises – like a deli counter or supermarket bakery. So even though sesame is required to be labeled as a top allergen in England, Pret’s labeling practices as a “fresh food” maker had, at least until Natasha’s inquest, fallen into this gray area.
Following the inquest into Natasha’s death Pret a Manger has promised to make major changes to the way it labels fresh food in Britain. As of November, it will list all ingredients, including top allergens, on fresh foods prepared daily in its U.K. kitchens. The same rollout is expected in U.S. shop locations early in 2019.
Matt thinks it’s about time labels improved on all sold foods. He had never experienced a severe reaction until the one in 2015. And it completely changed his life.
“I’m extremely cautious of what I eat. I cook at home as much as I can,” he says. “I’m constantly walking around with two auto-injectors and antihistamines wherever I go.” When it comes to eating out: “I never eat on a plane or in certain public areas and I’m more verbal with restaurant staff.”
If U.S. labeling laws were different, Matt would feel more reassured about buying pre-made sandwiches or eating out at restaurants. “When you buy a sandwich that says it’s made of corn, avocado, tomato and flatbread, you assume you can eat all four of those ingredients,” he says. “It doesn’t make any sense to me why you wouldn’t it’s not mandated to disclose all the ingredients.”
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