Why marketing has no place in the world of allergens

It’s raining. It’s the lunch run. The team is back at an event and everyone’s hungry. Need to be quick. We’ve got half an hour to order and eat. Have I got everyone’s orders? Yes. Let’s check the list.

  • Anything will do. Loves meatballs though.
  • No dairy. Go for vegan option Jen said, that’s safest.
  • No nuts.
  • Chicken and bacon sandwich.
  • No fish.

Let’s go! Where’s the nearest shop? It’s London so there’ll be a place close. Ok. Grabs the lunches. Checks the labels. All good.

Feel familiar?

Today eating out can be a bit of a minefield. If you’re lucky and have a stomach and body who loves everything without any reactions then I, and I’m sure many others are very jealous, because I’ve been hospitalised three times due to the ignoring of my allergy. I also spent 8 years in agony due to an intolerance.

As a chef, it must sound odd that I’ve got food allergies and intolerances, but many do. Is it frustrating? Of course! I love food! Is it someone just being difficult? No. Why? Because allergens are life or death things. Intolerances are serious medical problems. They need to be acknowledged.

So why is it one of the biggest food chains in the UK, who’s mislabelling of allergens resulted in the death of a young woman in 2017 and another death in 2018 still not being clear?

On Thursday 5th March 2020, I got in to a conversation with Pret’s social team over the fact their ‘Avo Smoothie’ was listed as vegan, but according to a manager in one of their shops, it actually wasn’t. What’s more, it wasn’t suitable for people with dairy or egg allergens.

Huh?

Here’s how the conversation went.

My thoughts?

  • Absolutely unbelievable.
  • Marketing talk doesn’t belong in the world of allergens or food safety for that matter.
  • How are they getting away with this?

There’s three main issues here:

  • Allergens – there’s currently 14 allergens. In short, allergens are different to intolerances because they cause an immune reaction which affects organs. Intolerances on the other hand are less serious and are normally limited to digestive problems.
  • Someone’s chosen food choices, in this case, vegan – if something is labelled ‘suitable for vegans’, you’d assume just that.
  • Human behaviour – Part of Pret’s response was this, “We do have signs around our shops advising customers of this.” Seriously? How often do people stop and look at signs? Why would anyone look for a sign when they trust a food company to produce food in line with what it says on the packaging e.g. ‘Suitable for vegans’. Many people who have certain allergies sometimes choose vegan foods for convenience. People are busy. Etc etc.

Why risk someone’s life?

Transparency is everything.

Pret should be clearly labelling their products. This means stating on the product itself exactly what’s what.

Not saying it’s suitable for vegans. And then leaving out allergen information.

Why such a large company can’t produce things like smoothies without a risk of cross-contamination is beyond me. Regardless, why they haven’t learnt from their mistakes is more concerning.

I’m still waiting to hear back from Pret

What felt like a fob off response was sent at 1.06pm today. They’ll pass on my comments to the Packaging Team for review.

Great…

I asked when I’d receive a response and what their review timeline is, but nothing.

For now, if you still want to eat at Pret and have allergens or intolerances, or just a basic level of wanting to trust who’s preparing your food, maybe think twice before entering their doors.