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Would Owen’s Law save lives?

The tragic death of Owen Carey in 2017 has prompted more conversations within the food industry around legislation to make allergen information clearer on restaurant menus. But is this the best way to keep food hypersensitive consumers safe?

Could Owen's Law save lives?

One of the great merits of the food industry is its ability to adapt and change procedure when required. The downside to this is the fact that it can often take an extremely serious incident, like a particularly nasty outbreak or the death of a consumer, to drive conversation around change.

There have, unfortunately, been at least two such major incidents within the last six years. The deaths of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse and Owen Carey have driven much needed discussion and, in the case of the former, legislation in the form of Natasha’s Law. Owen Carey‘s family is now calling for  Owen’s Law. This theoretical legislation would see restaurants compelled to state the allergens in a dish clearly on the front of a menu. The Owen’s Law campaign states, “this simple change would eliminate the risk that exists at the point of order when a waiter does not fully understand, or is not trained enough to process, or simply ignores the customer’s concerns about allergens in each dish”.

Would Owen’s Law save lives?

Owen Carey, who was out celebrating his 18th birthday at London’s O2 arena, collapsed after eating a chicken burger he did not know had been marinaded in buttermilk, which he was allergic to. An inquest into his death heard that the menu contained “no mention” of a marinade. 

It’s important to note that, as Byron CEO, Simon Wilkinson, told New Food, Byron “complied with all legal requirements back in 2017 when the tragic accidental death of Owen occurred. The dish that Owen ate was correctly labelled in the allergen guide as containing dairy, unfortunately the guide was not requested at the time of ordering as evidenced during the Coroner’s hearing.”

Iain Ferris, who is a lecturer in food safety, food standards and food law at the University of Birmingham, thinks a proposed Owen’s law would make a real difference to the safety of food hypersensitive consumers. “In these cases, they [Owen Carey, Natasha Ednan-Laperouse and Chloe Gilbert] all consumed an allergen that they didn’t expect to be there. Something like Owen’s Law, that is proposed to declare these allergens upfront, would protect hypersensitive consumers from said unexpected allergens – and would have possibly saved the lives of these individuals,” he told New Food.

“The first step is to know what is in the product that would stop allergic individuals from consuming them. That’s the basic control – to stop them from eating it. The dose of allergenic ingredients is going to be much higher than, for example, the risk of cross-contamination or traces. So, therefore they’re going to consume a larger dose when they’ve consumed a product that contains a deliberately added ingredient. Knowing in advance that your product contains milk or sesame would help,” he added. “It [Owen’s Law] has the potential to save lives.”

What about staff training?

However, as Ferris went on to mention, there is a second layer to this debate, and that is the role that staff training plays in protecting hypersensitive consumers. We know from speaking with individuals with food allergies that approachable, knowledgeable waiting staff can make a huge difference to what can otherwise be a stressful and nerve-inducing experience.

In the case of Owen Carey, a simple conversation may well have transformed the evening into a routine birthday meal, rather than the tragedy that unfolded that night. At the inquest, Byron’s Technical Manager Aimee Leitner-Hopps said, “if you have an allergy, you should be asking for information and the team would have provided it.” The coroner’s report into Owen’s death makes it clear that Owen did make staff at Byron aware of his dairy allergy, but clearly something went badly wrong in the serving process to result in Owen eating a chicken burger that had been marinaded in buttermilk.  Would better staff training in which allergies are raised by the waiting staff increase safety for food hypersensitive consumers?

The onus at the moment is on the consumer to raise the issue of food allergies, yet as Ferris pointed out, this is not always easy. “There’s been lots written about kind of the psychology behind allergic individuals and how they may not ask in some situations.

Ferris explained a scenario he often cites in his teaching, whereby a chef that is making spaghetti Bolognese decides to add Worcester Sauce to ‘spice’ their dish up. “If I was allergic to fish, would I ask every time that I ate spaghetti Bolognese whether it contained fish? Probably not.”

In the above example, a proposed Owen’s Law would eliminate the need for the customer allergic to fish to ask about the spaghetti Bolognese, because it would be clearly labelled as containing fish. But Ferris cautions that a potential Owen’s Law “shouldn’t be used in isolation”.

He continued: “There is always the danger that if you provide the information up front, that you take out the conversation with the staff member. And that’s why I say both the training of staff members and clear labelling are important, because of the way that we produce food in catering outlets.

“In my experience of visiting caterers over the years and working in them, I don’t know any that I think would be confident in claiming they are working to a standard that would guarantee that a dish is free from any traces of cross-contamination of allergens on a day-to-day basis.

“And that’s why it’s important to know if I’m catering for an allergic person, so I can put in place extra controls. For example, if you were cooking on the grill where you have ingredients that are used, like a marinade, you are likely to be using that same grill for maybe steaks or other products where there is a risk potentially of cross-contamination. 

“Hospitality needs to know beforehand that they’re catering for the allergic person, so they can put in place those extra controls. Allergic customers shouldn’t rely purely on information on the menu.”

The importance of the guest themselves raising the issue of allergies with the restaurant was echoed by Wilkinson (though the death of Owen Carey took place two years before he took on the role). As he put it: “The responsibility rests with three parties: the company to provide a detailed allergen guide and train their employees to follow the correct processes, the guest to request to see the guide at the point of ordering, and the employees to be trained in the correct procedures when a guest alerts them to any allergies.”

In a recent poll conducted by New Food, the question of whether staff training or better allergen information on menus (ie, Owen’s Law) would make more of a difference to food hypersensitive consumers was posed. Out of 168 respondents, 55 percent agreed that better labelling on menus would increase safety and confidence among hypersensitive consumers the most, while 38 percent thought better training for employees would have the greatest impact (seven percent answered ‘other’).

QR code menus are becoming more and more popular

With QR code menus becoming more and more popular, should new legislation be centred around digital menus?

The third way

The merits of Owen’s Law have been well-established, but there is room for other ways to offer more protection to food hypersensitive consumers. Wilkinson said he was “supportive of any improvements that prevent accidental deaths occurring”. He revealed he is also in correspondence with the Carey family and supports Owen’s Law, however, he has asked the campaign to adopt a slightly different approach.

“Predominantly physical menus have disappeared due to the threat of cross contamination (as a result of COVID-19) and have been replaced with QR codes, digital and screen ordering technologies,” he said.

“I predict that physical menus will not exist within a short period of time, except for perhaps within fine-dining restaurants. Quick service restaurants are now 100 percent digital ‘order and pay’, and the rest of the sector is moving that way very quickly. The younger generations demand order and pay ‘at table’ technology, all accessible by their own personal smart phones, which means most conversations with waiting staff are eliminated.

“The relevance of this is that all allergy guides are now accessed digitally which means the information is intricately linked to the menu by touch screen. You simply click on the allergy information tab and all the information is detailed. Most technology then prompts you to confirm you have read the information prior to ordering.

“My opinion, for what it is worth, supported by over 35 years of experience within hospitality, is that due to the speed of technological change, the allergens are now all linked to the menu so the proposal from the family for Owen’s Law may not be the best route forward.

Wilkinson believes that adding symbols to menus will not making dining out safer and attributes this to three core reasons. Firstly, because a dining out experience lets consumers swap items such as toppings, sauces and accompaniments (unliked pre-packaged goods).

Secondly, he warns that it could place an overreliance on the symbol and deter the consumer from asking for more details; and thirdly, there may be a space issue, with menus already expected to squeeze a lot of on other necessary information in.

“I suggest a slight change of direction,” he said. “I would propose that Owen’s Law makes it compulsory for the allergen information tab on all digital ordering systems to be the first tab a consumer sees and made compulsory to be at the top of the page. In small cafes or fine dining restaurants where physical menus may still exist in a few years’ time, the notice that an allergen guide is available and must be read is at the top of the page so it is the first thing a consumer sees. I passionately believe this is the way to protect lives in the future.”

But as Iain Ferris points out, the move to digital menus, while fast-paced, is not being adopted by everybody. “As a combination (with physical information) and to support it, it might work. But not everyone is digitally savvy – so you probably want this information both digitally and physically,” said Ferris.  

Conclusion

There is clearly a real appetite to change the game in regard to food hypersensitive consumers and their meals out. It is so unfortunate that it has taken the death of a young man (and others) for such serious but necessary conversations to take place.

The proposed Owen’s Law would almost certainly make things easier for those with allergies as it would eliminate the need for an awkward conversation which younger people often struggle with as evidenced by campaigns such as the FSA’s Speak up for Allergies.

Owen’s Law would no doubt provide a better initial line of defence for hypersensitive consumers, but it should be used as part of a package of measures. We need allergies to be approached in stages – with the first line of defence being clear allergen information; the second, sufficient training for staff so they are able to advise what the individual can eat; and the third, appropriate controls to prevent from cross-contamination. Only with this combination can we make a real strides.  

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