God, I swore I’d give up blogging until I could stop having to talk about food intolerances but clearly the world isn’t going to let me because today’s statement at Pret ‘trialling’ food labelling makes me feel compelled to write about my experiences of eating there.
I live in Central London where these days there are more Prets than red phone boxes. Even Elephant and Castle and Brixton have their own branches these days. If you want to buy a sandwich while out and sit down to eat, there’s actually often few other choices than Pret a Manger.
Not quite as glamorous now as their early 00s era when a crayfish and rocket sandwich was a status symbol, I still had a soft spot for their Jamon Buerre and the Artisan Proscuitto since I’m not a fan of the overly mayonnaised sandwiches most chains offer.
But since developing severe food intolerances to FODMAPs, it became very clear that Pret was not a safe place for me or other people with dietary needs to eat at. This has been highlighted by the tragic and shocking case of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse who died after eating a baguette that wasn’t labelled as containing sesame.
While my heart went out to her family and friends who experienced her traumatic and needless death, I also wasn’t surprised that the company involved with unsafe labelling was Pret because I’ve had several experiences of hidden foods there and no good response from them when I’ve flagged it up.
Food labelling is essential for people with allergies because put quite simply food can kill them but it’s also essential for those of us with intolerances too as we can be made ill for weeks by eating unsafe food. Put simply safe food labelling is a disability accessibility issue and decent customer service rolled into one.
But Pret has always treated it like a boring inconvenience to their branding to even state the basics in their food as if even telling you whether there is mayo or butter is such a drag. I’ve bought a ham and cheese sandwich there not labelled as having either which is not that weird since that combo doesn’t often have any condiments and discovered on first bite that it had garlic butter in it.
I’m currently extremely intolerant to garlic to the extent that one bite of a meal containing it leaves me bedbound with symptoms for 24 hours. However it’s also intensified to the extent that I’m getting symptoms from garlic where my mouth starts to swell and itch and I’m militant about avoiding it to prevent this worsening.
I immediately contacted Pret by my personal Twitter account which only has a few hundred followers to tell them what had happened. Total crickets. Switched to the account with four thousand followers and instant response albeit telling me if I had allergies I should ask for the ‘book’ before buying anything.
My back went up so hard I pulled a muscle. For a major food retailer to not understand the difference between intolerances and allergies is extremely alarming. And while I appreciate the presence of the ‘book’ telling me to check it simply isn’t good enough.
For those of you who don’t know ‘the book’ is a ringbinder every restaurant with a certain number of branches has to keep on site to list ingredients in their products and particularly list the 14 allergens noted by the EU. It can be a great resource when done well but there is no standardised procedure for it between businesses so even looking at ‘the book’ can be barely effective.
Some places such as Pret write the bare minimum listing only the required allergens and still little info about all ingredients so if you are allergic or intolerant to items beyond the core 14, you are not much further on. Other companies such as Leon list everything down to the salt and pepper and trace elements while Starbucks and McDonalds go even further and make ‘the book’ available online too.
Because this is the other problem, ‘the book’ exists in stores but you can’t always access it. On a busy lunchtime with a queue they want to keep moving as fast as possible, many stores, especially Pret obstruct you accessing ‘the book’ denying its presence, telling you have to ask the manager specially, refusing to give you it in case you steal it (I kid you not) or simply producing something so badly written and printed that you can’t actually read especially in a busy bustling shop where you are in the way of countless people as you try to pick out the small print.
It almost always feels like whatever department was tasked with creating ‘the book’ resented it and did the bare minimum to pass legal standards. It’s common to get given a massive spreadsheet squeezed down to 7 point font in an A4 binder than you need perfect vision and all the time in the world to read. How anyone with lower literacy, dyslexia, cognitive issues, impaired vision or hearing is meant to access ‘the book’ is beyond me. Many online versions are non mobile responsive pdfs that are neither use nor ornament.
So you’d assume that you could just ask the staff and cut out the middleman? Sadly no. There is so much hostility in the service industry about acknowledging dietary needs that often staff refuse to answer questions or when they don’t know what’s in things can’t be bothered to consult ‘the book’ themselves and give inaccurate info, usually delivered with a dose of disdain that you are holding their queue up or being so ‘demanding’ or presumably ‘faking’.
There’s a particular issue with the allergy/intolerance issue. If you are intolerant, the allergens list doesn’t usually help you and if you say you are intolerant rather than allergic, there is a distinct attitude that if you aren’t going to die from eating then you should suck it up buttercup and deal with the bloating they assume is all that happens.
Now, not to knock bloating. It’s painful and unnecessary and impacts people’s physical and mental health and no one wants it. In fact for me garlic or onion cause such bloating my belly swells up to 10 inches restricting my ability to breathe or lie down or walk. I also get immediate severe diarrhoea (Pret also lacks toilets…) and then like many people such as coeliacs, I get after symptoms for days and weeks afterwards such as severe migraine, bowel inflammation, joint pain, severe fatigue and too many fodmap fuck ups trigger weeks long ME/CFS relapses.
That sneaky garlic butter than might just ruin your afternoon meeting with embarrassing breath but for me it can lead to be housebound for weeks and too ill to access medical care or day to day life. I explained this to the woman who called from Pret in May this year and she made all kinds of sympathetic noises and sent me a expensive present to apologise insisting this was an ‘isolated event’.
But even now they are only promising to ‘trial’ full labelling despite causing a child’s death, receiving countless allergy warnings prior to that and no doubt thousands of intolerance and allergy issues since. If you can afford to send me £60 of posh cosmetics from one of your ‘corporate gift partners’, brand fully veggie Prets and big up your vegan credentials, you can afford to take the health and safety of your customers seriously.
I am very pro-vegan and vegetarian labelling to allow people dietary choices but I have real issues with companies prioritising dietary choice over dietary needs. And so I no longer shop at Pret because time and time again they have shown that they do not care if they make customers ill or risk their lives. Hollow apologies and posh presents mean nothing when you do not make changes at the same time. Imagine if they were this cavalier about hygiene and every time you grabbed a speedy sarnie you risked days of stomach upset from food poisoning?
I cannot control what my body reacts to but I can control what goes into it and I can control where I spend my money and that money no longer goes to companies who disregard my right to keep myself safe. If you can’t afford to label food clearly Pret, then you can’t afford to open five stores on each City of London block.
I stick the independents who go out of their way to help or the chains who train staff well, provide information I can access independently without having to ask permission and don’t treat my desire to not poison myself with their food as an annoyance. And funnily enough, I am extremely loyal to these businesses.
I suggest Pret take a leaf out of their books and before they introduce labelling and improve ‘the book’ they speak to people with allergies and intolerances along with specialists and doctors to see what is needed to make everyone’s life safer and easier. Otherwise they will continue to give the impression this is a PR exercise designed to repair the brand than any sense of care…
Edit: since I posted this a second death related to Pret has been announced.