Lessons in crisis management from Pret a Manger allergy deaths

UK-based international sandwich shop, Pret a Manger, is in the spotlight following the allergy-related deaths of two customers in recent years. With over 500 shops in nine countries selling 218 million products a year, perhaps more was expected of the company’s management of the crisis, which has been criticised as ‘too little, too late’.

Reports in the media state that sesame-allergic 15-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse collapsed on a flight to France and later died due to a severe allergic reaction after eating a sandwich bought at a Pret a Manger shop in Heathrow in July 2016. Days after the coroner had told the company he feared others might die if it did not change its processes, reports emerged that a second customer, 42-year-old Celia Marsh, had died in December 2017 after eating a product containing a yoghurt that was supposed to be dairy-free but was not.

The company’s chief executive is said to have sent a handwritten note of condolence to Natasha’s family in August 2017 – more than a year after their daughter’s death and a week before an inquest began. Further reputational damage came after the company attempted to shift blame for the second customer death onto the vegan yoghurt company, CoYo, which it said provided a product contaminated with dairy protein.

The inquest into Natasha’s death focused on the fact that while the company flagged allergy information in some of their shops, the use of labelling was inconsistent and packaging on individual products did not list allergen information. While the company was compliant with all relevant legislation, the coroner suggested it had been “evading the spirit of the legislation”, particularly as Pret a Manger had been involved with nine cases of similar sesame allergy reactions in the year before Natasha died.

Pret a Manger has since introduced full labelling on its products despite arguing during the inquest there was a “mislabelling” risk if it were to introduce such measures.

The coroner undertook to write to the British government recommending a change in food regulations, which currently require restaurants to inform their customers if any food contains major allergens when asked, but does not require items to be individually labelled if they were made on the premises rather than arriving there pre-packaged.

For more details see the Guardian.