Katey Pigden reports
If the catering industry wasn't taking allergies seriously before, it should certainly be sitting up and taking note now. Restaurateurs and foodservice businesses have been given a clear warning about the consequences
for failing to do so after a restaurant owner was convicted of manslaughter last month.
In what is thought to be a legal first for the industry, Indian restaurant owner Mohammed Khalique Zaman was sentenced to six years' imprisonment after 38-year-old Paul Wilson suffered a fatal anaphylactic reaction to the
peanuts in his takeaway curry.
Wilson, a bar manager from Helperby, North Yorkshire, was meticulous about his condition and asked for 'no nuts' for his chicken tikka masala, an instruction written on the order and on the takeaway lid. He was later found slumped over the toilet at his home. Detectives discovered a menu from Zaman's restaurant and seized the barely-eaten curry, which was found on the kitchen table, and sent it for forensic examination.
Zaman, the owner of the Indian Garden restaurant in Easingwold, North Yorkshire, denied he was responsible for Wilson's death, but the jury at Teesside Crown Court was told he had swapped almond powder for a cheaper ground nut mix that contained peanuts. The prosecution said Zaman had "put profit before safety" at the restaurants he owned. The court heard that less than a month before Wilson's death in January 2014, another nut allergy sufferer, Ruby Scott, 17, was hospitalised after eating a chicken korma from another of Zaman's six restaurants.
Judge Simon Bourne-Arton said Zaman had ignored warnings from officials and had been "in complete and utter denial", throwing away his £2m business "in pursuit of profit".
Bourne-Arton told Zaman: "He [Wilson], like you, worked in the catering trade. He, unlike you, was a careful man." In March 2015, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced that Zaman had been charged with manslaughter by gross negligence. During the trial, the court heard he had debts of almost £300,000 and had been trying to save money.
Wilson's death sparked an investigation by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) into the use of peanuts and almonds instead of more expensive cumin. Now the CPS has warned food businesses that they have a duty of care to their customers and if they don't take allergies seriously, they could face jail. Martin Goldman, chief crown prosecutor, CPS Yorkshire and Humberside, said: "This is a truly tragic case in which Paul Wilson lost his life entirely needlessly. Mohammed Zaman directly caused the death of Mr Wilson by causing him to be served a meal that he knew contained potentially lethal peanut powder."
He added: "Zaman failed to warn customers, failed to properly train his employees and failed to take any action following a previous serious allergic reaction."
He concluded with a crystalclear message to the catering industry: "If you ignore your responsibilities and regulations and put lives at risk, then we will not hesitate to prosecute."
The Asian Catering Federation, which has been educating its members about the dangers posed by allergens, described Zaman as a "callous individual". The federation's chairman, Yawar Khan, said: "[Zaman] has done enormous damage to the hard-working restaurateurs and their staff, who exercise meticulous customer care and strive to build their businesses.
The legal view
The EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation (FIR) was published in the Official Journal of the European Union in October 2011 and came into effect in December 2014. The government responsibility for
the FIR varies across the UK, while food businesses have been given flexibility on how they provide allergy information. John Mitchell, a partner at commercial law firm Blake Morgan, said: "I would certainly say
this case is the first conviction of its kind. Generally people are being prosecuted by local authorities under the FIR and it usually involves some kind of mess-up where people haven't realised about the allergens in certain ingredients they are using.
"Caterers are not necessarily poor with allergies, but they, and manufacturers, can be poor with ingredient control. We are starting to see a lot of recalls and it's beginning to bite."
He added: "It's often difficult to prove manslaughter, but the evidence supported it with this case. He [Zaman] substituted ingredients and had been warned about it being dangerous, and that's why it has come back on him. It sends out a stark message to caterers to ensure if they are using something with allergens they deal with it correctly. If you receive a warning from your local authority, ignore it at your peril."
Food businesses must provide clear and accurate information about dishes which contain any of the 14 specified allergens. A recent survey by the FSA and charity Allergy UK, carried out to mark Allergy Awareness
Week, suggested there have been improvements for those with allergies since new labelling rules came in, but more work still needs to be done.
It found one in four people has suffered a reaction while eating out in a restaurant or café since the introduction of the allergen labelling legislation. It also found that nearly one in five (19%) of those reactions resulted in a hospital visit. More than two-thirds (69%) have experienced staff not understanding the severity of an allergy, a similar number (68%) have seen staff with a lack of knowledge of what's on the menu or in the food, and
56% said they have been made to feel like an inconvenience due to their allergy.
Amena Warner, head of clinical services at Allergy UK, said: "Food allergies can cause symptoms that in some cases are so severe that they result in fatality. This causes huge anxieties to people with food allergy, especially when it comes to buying food and eating out."
She added: "Food labelling legislation was introduced to help people identify and know exactly what is in their food but accidental exposure may occur."
The 14 allergens
•Tree nuts (such as walnuts and hazelnuts)
•Cereals containing gluten
•Celery and celeriac
•Sulphur dioxide and sulphites (at levels above 10mg/kg)
BHA warns: you get what you pay for
Next month the British Hospitality Association (BHA) will be launching the Industry Guide to Good Hygiene Practice: Catering 2016, which is recognised by the FSA and Food Standards Scotland.
Dr Lisa Ackerley, food safety advisor at the BHA, said: "Many businesses may be tempted to buy cheaper ingredients, particularly as in this case, where the restaurant was in debt and struggling, but our message is
beware: you get what you pay for. Check your ingredients and be mindful of food fraud, as substitutions and adulterated products can be dangerous. If it is too good to be true, then there is probably something wrong with it."
The BHA says caterers should take heed of the following:
•Be vigilant about what goods you order and check that they are what you asked
•Make sure that you are totally confident about the ingredients in your dishes
•Consumers have a right to know about allergenic ingredients in food, and will ask questions
•If you don't know, you risk facing criminal action and harming your customers
•Make sure all your team is allergen trained and know exactly what is in your dishes
•Don't allow substitutions without involving trained managers who can then make the appropriate process changes
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