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When the takeaway is death

Peter Lee

Questions over the future of takeaway food apps and delivery services are raised by the second case of a restaurateur being prosecuted following the death of a customer after an extreme allergic reaction.

In May 2016, Mohammed Zaman, was jailed for six years for the manslaughter of Paul Wilson. Wilson ordered a takeaway meal from The Indian Garden Restaurant. He specifically ordered a meal with no nuts and, when police investigating his death found the container in which his meal had been delivered, the words "no nuts" were written on the lid. The same was written on the order slip at the restaurant. However, investigators found that peanut powder had been allowed to come into contact with other ingredients and had contaminated them. Wilson was an exceptional case: the court was told that his allergy was so severe that even the scent of peanuts would cause a reaction. Even so, Wilson ordered chicken tikka masala, a dish in which peanuts are a common ingredient, from a restaurant that cooks with peanuts.

The Court heard that this was not the first instance: Zaman was the owner of six restaurants. At another restaurant, a teenage girl was assured that her meal was nut free. It wasn't and she required treatment in hospital.

Amongst the factors blamed was poor management, poor hygiene and the use of untrained, sometimes illegal, workers.

This week, Mohammed Kuddus, the owner of the Royal Spice Indian Takeaway in Hyndburn, Lancashire and co-accused Harun Rashid who worked at the takeaway are both Bangladeshi nationals appeared in court accused of manslaughter. A young girl died after eating a meal with peanuts in it. Her friend, when ordering the meal online via the Just Eat service had entered "prawns, nuts" in the allergies section.

Almost all "Indian" restaurants and takeaways in the UK are, in fact, owned and run by Bangladeshis. Nuts, and in particular peanuts, are a significant ingredient in Bangladeshi, sometimes referred to as "North Indian" cuisine.

The meal included a kebab, a Peshwari naan and an onion bhaji. The girl suffered what prosecutors told the court was "an immediate reaction" to the kebab and so she stopped eating that but ate the rest of the food. Peshwari naan is a stuffed flatbread, the stuffing containing nuts and dried fruit. Nuts, or nut powder, are often added to other dishes for flavour. Some time after returning home, she died essentially as the result of a severe asthma attack caused by the nut allergy.

Prosecutors have alleged that there were "no procedures in place" for the management of allergens and "no audit of their available dishes or written recipes of their dishes." That, one has to say, is absolutely common in restaurants where the food is often prepared by different cooks who produce food according to their own tastes and, often, family history. However, "widespread presence of peanut protein of levels that were unsafe for people allergic to peanuts," the premises were not clean and there was evidence of mouse droppings, the Court was told. The court was also told that samples of food at the takeaway showed high levels of peanut protein.

Kuddus, 40, for himself and his company, has admitted that he did not comply with EU food safety regulations. Rashid has pleaded not guilty. The trial relating to the alleged unlawful death continues.

The cases raise significant questions. Already, many restaurants refuse "doggy bags" because they are afraid of litigation resulting from something that happens after the food leave their premises and control. Restaurants in many countries are required to identify allergens, as are providers of packaged food. Those things are settled. It follows, then, that, even if specific recipes are not made available, a list of ingredients must be.

However, there has to be a degree of sense here: customers have to be responsible for their own welfare. In the Wilson case, his allergy was so severe that even the smallest amount peanut was problematic. Logically, then, he should not order food from any kitchen in which peanuts are used, just as someone with a severe celiac intolerance would be imprudent to buy bread from a bakery specialising in wheat-based products. One of our team is "lactose intolerant" and buffalo milk and its products produce a rapid and risky reaction: "it's simple, I just avoid places that cook with ghee or use buffalo mozzarella."

Even sterilising pans and utensils does not remove all traces of peanuts. Logically, then, it is incumbent on restaurants to say "we cannot guarantee there will not be nuts in our dishes. If you want that guarantee, we cannot serve you."

This leaves the food ordering and delivery industry in a quandary: does it post a message from restaurants saying "our food contains x allergen. If you order, you accept its presence and all associated risks" or do the "apps" and websites take messages, pass them on, and then deal with the fallout when outlets reject orders which may seem the safest thing to do.

The situation is, seemingly, untenable for restaurants which cook food with allergens. While an individual dish might be prepared free of nuts, sauces are often prepared, in bulk, in advance. It is impossible to extract the nuts from a cooked sauce and it is not viable to produce sauce, individually, for many dishes. Also, in kitchens where ingredients are ranged in containers for picking up as a mis en place, the idea that a cook should use a different utensil for each to avoid cross-"contamination" is, in the real world, farcical.

In these cases, there is no dispute that the customers tried to limit the risks and that the restaurants accepted orders but failed to ensure that the meals were free of nuts. If that was reckless or, even, negligent, then it is difficult to argue against manslaughter. And that means that the only safe course of action is to reject special orders, especially those that relate to allergens to which severe reaction may take place, regardless of whether those orders come via a waiter, a phone call, a website or an app.

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