Leona O'Neill: Natasha's death shows attitudes to food allergies must change

Asking someone if they have food allergies could save a life and the recent high-profile inquest into the heartbreaking death of a 15-year-old girl suggests we all need to be more aware of and up front about the issue, writes Leona O'Neill

Nadim and Tanya Ednan-Laperouse, with their son Alex, speaking to the press outside West London Coroners Court last week, following the conclusion of the inquest into their daughter Natasha's death

THE tragic death of English teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who passed away after suffering a fatal allergic reaction to a Pret A Manger sandwich on board a flight to France, has brought the issue of allergen labelling into sharp, heartbreaking focus.

Fifteen-year-old Natasha collapsed on a British Airways flight from London to Nice in July 2016 after eating an artichoke, olive and tapenade baguette that she had bought while passing through Heathrow Airport. The sandwich contained sesame seeds, to which Natasha was allergic, but the baguette packaging or the food display cabinet did not specify that.

A video of the young woman, on the cusp of her life, heading off for a four-day-break in France with her Dad and her best friend emerged on Friday as the coroner ruled in her inquest. It was heartbreaking and haunting to watch. Her father spoke outside and said that he hoped the inquest into his beloved girl’s death will serve as a watershed moment to save the lives of others with allergies.

I’m thankful that none of my children have severe food allergies. I have two asthmatics with dust allergies and I know how frightening sudden-onset breathing difficulties feels like. It is absolutely terrifying. I can’t imagine what it is like for a parent with a child with a severe nut allergy, for example, and the dangers that every day life can pose to them.

This week the Food Standards Agency (FSA) released new research to urge young people with allergies to speak up about them.

Their Easy To ASK campaign, in conjunction with Allergy UK and the Anaphylaxis Campaign, aims to empower young people to ask food businesses about allergens when eating out, so they can make safe choices. Research carried out found that a sizeable amount of young people did not feel comfortable asking for allergen information when dining outside their homes.

Easy to ASK is also a reminder to businesses to be up front about the provision of accurate allergen information, particularly with this vulnerable group – asking a customer if they have food allergies could save a life. It follows the simple mnemonic Always ask about allergies, Speak Up, Keep Safe – ASK.

The campaign follows several tragic allergy-related deaths among young people in the north. Data shows that children and young adults are disproportionately more prone to die from an allergic reaction than adults.

The FSA research found worryingly that seven per cent of young people with a food allergy or intolerance reported that they don’t tell anyone about their condition – risking allergic reactions – reasons ranged from feeling too embarrassed to talk publicly about having a food allergy or feeling their condition is too complicated to explain.

Maria Jennings, Food Standards Agency’s Northern Ireland director, urged young people to speak up about their allergies.

“Living with a food allergy or intolerance can be challenging and potentially fatal,” she said. “Many students will be starting the new academic year, in new surroundings and making new friends. It’s vital they feel confident about speaking up and asking for allergen information.

“Although we’ve seen significant progress in how food businesses approach customers with allergies, 60 per cent of young people tell us they’ve avoided eating out in the past six months because of their condition.

“Food businesses therefore have a key role to play to ensure young people feel more at ease when eating out by providing accurate allergen information and asking their customers if they have a food allergy.

“Our Easy To ASK campaign will empower young people and remind food businesses to ask the question, speak up and help keep those at risk to stay safe.”

There’s a child in my daughter’s school with a severe nut allergy. Everyone knows the seriousness of it and everyone happily doesn’t bring nuts to school. It has become normal to the children to watch out for this little girl and make sure she’s OK. That is how it should be.

Allergies are so common in this modern age, we should all be looking out for one another and food businesses and restaurants should do the same, making inquiring about allergens completely normal. Maybe then our children would not be afraid to ASK.

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