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Natasha Ednan-Laperouse's tragic death exposes Britain's broken regulatory systems

4 min read

The family of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse deserve our help in ensuring another tragedy like this cannot happen, writes Labour MP Andy Slaughter

Amongst much pressure of business as the Commons returned from recess yesterday, the Speaker granted the first Urgent Question on the issue of food labelling, a topic that has been suddenly promoted to the front pages by two tragic deaths - or rather the causes of those death - which reveal more gaping holes in the regulations of safety standards for UK consumers.
Natasha Ednan-Laperouse was my constituent. Two years ago, aged 15, she died following a catastrophic anaphylactic reaction to sesame seeds concealed inside the dough of a baguette purchased from a Pret a Manger branch at Heathrow Airport. Natasha knew she was allergic to sesame, but the seeds were not visible and not listed as an ingredient.

On 27 December 2017, Celia Marsh, a 42 year-old mother of five daughters, collapsed and died after eating a flatbread purchased from a Pret a Manger store in Bath. An inquest has still to take place, but it is believed Ms Marsh suffered an allergic reaction to milk protein which had contaminated the product which was described as dairy-free.  

In his verdict on Natasha’s death, given on 28 September, the Senior Acting Coroner for West London Dr Sean Cummings criticised the labelling and monitoring of products in Pret a Manger stores and called for the law to be changed to prevent future deaths.

Multinational businesses such as Pret a Manger claim exemption from the labelling laws that dictate all ingredients must be printed on packaging, by applying a loophole designed for small independent sandwich shops.  Because Pret a Manger partially prepares its food on site, it is able to ignore that requirement. However, yesterday it was revealed that Pret has its bread baked and frozen in industrial quantities in France, up to a year before it is defrosted and reheated in its UK outlets.

The death of Celia Marsh raises different but equally dangerous issues around cross-contamination and handling of food and suggests a wider review of food safety is necessary.

Yesterday Opposition MPs pressed for action, noting that Pret was always happy to list how healthy and pure its food was yet, until the verdict in Natasha’s case, had neither volunteered the information regarding Celia Marsh’s death nor agreed to list all ingredients on its products.

The response from the Government was wholly inadequate. Environment Secretary Michael Gove, who had willingly given the media soundbites on the issue, failed to attend to answer questions or give a statement. The junior minister sent in his place promised a ‘review’ without any indication of what this would cover or when it would report.  

But even if Defra does step up on the issues of food labelling and sourcing, this will only scratch the surface of a regulatory regime that is broken across local and central government.

In 2016 a serious tower block fire in my constituency was shown to be the latest of hundreds caused by a make of faulty tumble dryers. Whirlpool had sold five million of these over more than a decade. One in six UK homes had one.  

Last year the overwhelming tragedy of Grenfell Tower began with another fire seated in an electrical appliance.  The spread of that fire was accelerated by the cladding added to the exterior of the block.  

What has his to do with food allergens? Simply, all are the product of fractured regulatory and investigatory systems and the lack of both coordination and resources across numerous government departments and agencies. The current product safety regime is piecemeal and has meant that the Government has struggled to implement coherent legislation in this area. Trading standards departments have lost half their funding since 2010. They come under one ministry, consumer rights under another, food safety a third.

Natasha’s death has also highlighted the inadequate response to allergen reactions. The coroner in her case drew attention to British Airways operating procedures which did not allow for the use of a defibrillator on the flight when she was taken ill – a matter for the Department of Transport. He raised the possible failure of the EpiPens used to counter her reaction to the baguette – that’s the Department of Health.

Natasha’s father fought to save his daughter’s life for over an hour on the British Airways flight to Nice, but in vain. For all Natasha’s family and friends this is an unbearable grief, but her parents are determined to see action by Government to prevent any more families suffering the way theirs has. They deserve all our support in ensuring that happens.

Andy Slaughter is the Labour MP for Hammersmith

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