After living with a severe wheat allergy for 30 years, occupational therapist Marcelle Williams had learned to shop carefully.
So one evening in December last year, when she got hungry after a long day working on the Covid-19 frontline, she made sure she grabbed a suitable snack.
As she burst into the Marks & Spencer branch at Queen’s Hospital in Romford, Essex, where she works, Marcelle, 62, selected a cinnamon swirl from the shelves featuring the retailer’s ‘Made Without’ range; made without major food allergens such as nuts, dairy, eggs and wheat.
After living with a severe wheat allergy for 30 years, occupational therapist Marcelle Williams had learned to shop carefully
‘I love their cinnamon curls and buy them often,’ says Marcelle, who retired from the NHS two years ago but returned to help during the pandemic. But seconds after biting into the pastry on her bus ride home, Marcelle realized a terrible mistake had been made.
“My lips started to swell and my skin started to itch all over,” says the mother of two, who has three grandchildren.
She went into anaphylactic shock, in which the immune system floods the body with a chemical called histamine to flush out what she believes is a large-scale invasion of the allergy trigger. This makes breathing difficult by inflaming the airways and causing a life-threatening drop in blood pressure.
Marcelle has an EpiPen, a self-administered injection of adrenaline, which stops the potentially lethal reaction.
“The problem is that when I’m suffering from anaphylaxis, my hands and fingers quickly swell and become like claws,” says Marcelle. “They get so swollen that it becomes impossible to inject myself with an EpiPen.”
She managed to call her partner, Tony Joyce, 68, and he drove to the next bus stop, before taking her straight to the emergency room.
Marcelle, 62, selected a cinnamon swirl from the shelves of the retailer’s ‘Made Without’ range; made without major food allergens such as nuts, dairy, eggs and wheat [File photo]
‘I passed out shortly after arriving at the hospital,’ says Marcelle. “Poor Tony had to wait outside due to Covid restrictions and for the next 15 or 20 minutes he had no idea if I was dead or alive.”
Medical personnel quickly administered more adrenaline and gave her antihistamines and albuterol to open her airways.
“When I woke up 20 minutes later, I also had a mask over my face that carried oxygen to my lungs because my oxygen level was low,” says Marcelle.
Later that evening, she was discharged on an eight-day course of steroid tablets to suppress any lingering inflammation. “For the next few days I was exhausted and exhausted,” she says.
When the shock wore off, anger set in. The next day, Marcelle and Tony visited the store again to check the display and found cinnamon shavings made with wheat piled in the ‘Made Without’ shelves.
‘I was smoking,’ says Marcelle. ‘The two products are displayed side by side, without any separation between the racks.
“The plain cinnamon shavings shelf was full, so someone moved the excess to the ‘free from’ shelf.
‘This was an accident waiting to happen and when I complained to M&S I was given an apology and a £50 voucher,’ says Marcelle. “It barely covered the cost of the bra that doctors had to cut with scissors to save my life.”
In a statement to Good Health, M&S admitted the items were in the wrong place but emphasized that the cinnamon pack was “clearly labeled as containing wheat” and that the Made Without range has a “specific bold design” to distinguish allergen-containing foods. .
The company said: ‘We take allergens very seriously. We’re sorry to hear about this customer’s experience, but this was an isolated incident.” New legislation – called Natasha’s Law – will come into effect later this week that will force all food vendors (from supermarket giants to family cafes) to ensure that any prepackaged direct-sale food lists every ingredient and allergen.
While welcome, however, the rules will not eradicate the mistakes that put Marcelle at risk.
And Dr Isabel Skypala, an allergy dietitian at the Royal Brompton Hospital, London, says that while food retailers have improved the product-free range for the two million people with food allergies in the UK, mistakes are still made.
“This is a pretty serious case of human error and if Marcelle had eaten the entire vortex she would have been exposed to a significant amount of wheat,” she says.
dr. Skypala said she has heard of other cases where allergen-containing products were not properly labeled and purchased by people with food allergies.
“Most of these cases involve loose or unpackaged foods, and I advise my patients with severe food allergies not to buy them,” she says.
The kinds of mistakes that led to Marcelle fighting for her life are more common than we think.
In March, Asda came under fire after a customer found that the Scan & Go online shopping app failed to highlight allergens in a number of items.
This came to light when the mother of a young boy with a severe egg allergy double checked the products she’d bought, described in the app as egg-free, and found that they did contain egg. Fortunately, she noticed before her child ate them.
Another shopper with a dairy allergy claimed that the app didn’t list milk on certain products. Asda said it was due to a technical error and that it was updating the app to reflect all allergy-related information.
But some campaigners believe that these mistakes, while rare, are symptomatic of the food distribution industry’s long-standing complacency about severe food allergies.
“Marcelle could have died and I’ve heard similar stories from other people,” said Nadim Ednan-Laperouse, whose daughter Natasha died at age 15 on a flight from Heathrow to Nice in July 2016 after an allergic reaction to sesame in a baguette. from high street chain Pret A Manger.
Nowhere on the packaging did it say it was an ingredient. Her parents spearheaded Natasha’s law, which states that any sandwiches or other items prepared by the staff must have a label listing each ingredient and allergen. Ideally, these should be printed, but they can also be handwritten.
Companies must meet the October 1 deadline or risk hefty fines or even prosecution.
“It has always been entirely up to the allergy sufferer to be extra vigilant,” says Nadim. “But Natasha’s law fires the first shot across the bow of the food industry. Companies now have to comply – there is no negotiation.’
Research from Imperial College London shows that hospital admissions in the UK for food allergies have tripled in 20 years, with the largest increase in children under 15.
Deaths have fallen, mainly due to a 300 percent increase in prescriptions for life-saving devices like EpiPens.
But the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation fears deaths are underreported — or wrongly attributed to other causes — and wants a national registry of deaths from food-related anaphylaxis.
“Having to die from an allergy in the 21st century is a real tragedy,” said Sir Stephen Holgate, a professor of immunopharmacology and a trustee of the foundation.
Marcelle says retailers should display all allergens and product-free yards apart.
“Buying food can be a life-and-death situation for many people,” she says. ‘Such a simple measure is not too much to ask.’
Medical treatments that turn your stomach. This week: maggots
Maggot therapy is commonly used in the NHS for debridement, the removal of dead, unhealthy or infected tissue, as well as to clean surgical and trauma wounds and leg and pressure ulcers.
Maggot therapy can be used when other means of removing this tissue are not appropriate, explains Samantha Holloway, a reader in wound healing and tissue repair at Cardiff University School of Medicine in Wales.
‘For example, scalpels can cause excessive bleeding and with some specialist bandages it can take weeks to get the same result as maggots. Not only are they fast and effective in removing dead tissue, they also have an antimicrobial effect [thanks to the compounds they release] that help control infection in the wound, speeding up recovery.”