By Simon Basketter
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2624

The truth about food that makes us sick

This article is over 5 years, 6 months old
Issue 2624
Shelves full of potential poison at Pret
Shelves full of potential poison at Pret (Pic: Transport Pixels / WikiCommons)

Pret A Manger killed a teenage girl.

Natasha Ednan-Laperouse died after eating a baguette from the firm. She was unaware that sesame seeds—which she was allergic to—had been baked into the bread. The ingredient was not listed on the packaging.

Pret A Manger had previously proudly declared that its sandwiches had no labels “containing lots of boring numbers, dates and symbols” in a marketing campaign.

When food is made and packaged on the premises, outlets are not required to put allergen information on each item.

The legislation is designed to free small businesses from “red tape”. Pret A Manger has 500 branches in nine countries and a turnover of £776 million.

In the year prior to Natasha’s death, the company had received six complaints about allergic reactions to sesame in its “artisan” baguettes.

The pointless and ubiquitous, “May contain traces of nuts” is a clear guide that the people flogging you food don’t know what’s in it or how it is made. But they do have a legal department that fears compensation claims. Even if you don’t have a food allergy, that should worry you.

If you’re allergic to a food it doesn’t matter if it’s a peanut powder used to pad out more expensive almonds or it’s a locally sourced organic nut.

And no one knows for sure what causes food allergies, or the different but rising intolerances.

Yet Britain has some of the highest rates of allergic conditions in the world, with over 20 percent of the population affected. Some 20 people a year die from severe allergic reactions to food. In about a third of attacks, it isn’t clear which food was the cause.

The pursuit of profit in food production has produced a powerful correlation with the rise of dangerous food allergies and the adulteration of food.

Nearly all food is processed to be consumed. That isn’t a problem—but the methods used for food production for profit are.

The horse meat scandal in 2013 showed how food producers would happily adulterate food to make more cash.

There is a push towards obscure “clean labels” because people don’t trust E numbers. The purpose is still to obscure what’s in food.

“Fresh” cut fruit is sprayed in an acid solution to add 21 days to its shelf life. Commercial cooking oil is used for 12 days, kept “fresh” by antifreeze and varnish. It doesn’t appear on the label because it’s classed as a processing aid.


Ready-to-eat salads are “cleaned” by sloshing around in water dosed with extra chlorine and acids. The same tank of water is used for eight hours at a time.

“Natural colourings” is a pretty meaningless phrase. “Packaged in a protective atmosphere” is food that has been “gassed” in modified air to extend its shelf life.

Meat protein is collagen extracted from butchered carcasses, processed into a powder and added to meats or combined with water as a substitute for actual meat.

Eggs in sandwiches come pre-formed into cylinders, so that each egg slice is identical and there are no rounded ends. “Artisan” indeed. There is the cheaper option of using “egg replacers” made from whey.

They have a shelf life of 18 months.

A “natural” mature cheese is usually flavoured by blending new cheese with enzymes that intensify the flavour until it reaches “maturity” within 24 hours.

Enzymes are used to make bread stay soft, injected into low-value animals to tenderise their meat and used in fruit juice to create a cloudier appearance.

Butter can be dyed yellow by including yellow dye in cattle feed. It doesn’t have to be included on the label.

Even sushi won’t save you. Some 10 percent of seafood served as sushi is not the fish it claims to be.

None of this may directly cause life-threatening allergies. But since we don’t know what is in our food, it is hard to know.

In the past when the bosses adulterated beer there were riots. Now the poisoning of children gets you a corporate apology two years after the event and a vague promise of better labels.


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