Lack of Allergen Controls Leads to Manslaughter Conviction
Updated: Nov 19, 2018
Are your allergens under control? If not, are you prepared to face the consequences? They could be as “slight” as a general recall or as serious as a manslaughter conviction.
Undeclared allergens continue to be a top cause for recalls by both FDA and USDA-regulated facilities, and the vast majority of the time, the recall is made, the food destroyed or relabeled, and no harm is done (that you know of). But sometimes, a person with food allergies consumes the food and is seriously affected or even dies.
Last week, two food business managers in England were found guilty of manslaughter in the death of a 15-year-old girl. The teen had placed an online order for food from an Indian restaurant including a note in the comments section about prawns and nuts to which she was allergic. Upon eating the food, the teen began to experience allergic reactions. Though she was then hospitalized, she died from asthma due to nut allergy. The food was found to have contained peanut protein.
According to the FSN article, the Lancashire Police Detective Chief Inspector Mark Vaughton said, about the food facility: “The manner in which the operation was conducted; the premises and equipment maintained; the foodstuffs stored and used; the food prepared and supplied to the public, demonstrated little concern for the safety and well-being of their customers.”
What would a detective find on an inspection of your facility for a court case? Would the verdict be a “tragedy waiting to happen” which the defendants had given “little or no thought” as was said in this case? Would the prosecution say you failed to protect your customer? Would you have a defense? … What defense would really matter if your oversight was responsible for someone’s death?
Although it shouldn’t take a death for food facilities to take another, more in-depth, look at its allergen programs, the teen’s family hopes that this will serve as a warning to other food businesses who urged all food businesses to improve the standard of food safety and to take allergies seriously, adding, “Do not guess, do not play ignorant, do not play Russian roulette with precious lives.”
So I, too, urge all food facilities and providers to take it as a warning, as a jolt to examine your allergen control programs.
Are you running allergenic and non-allergenic foods on different lines, or at least running non-allergenic foods first and cleaning the lines thoroughly?
Do you store allergenic ingredients in a separate, well-marked location?
Do you have color-coded utensils and cleaning supplies for separate areas?
Do you have a check and balance for changeovers, to ensure the correct labeling results?
Are your employees trained on allergenic controls – and understand the seriousness of reactions?
Are your suppliers held to strict allergen controls; do they provide updates on any and all ingredient changes?
Do you do everything possible to prevent cross-contact in your facility and throughout the process?
And, perhaps most importantly, do you have preventive controls for allergens in your written food safety plan? And follow them?
Having and documenting your allergen and labeling controls is critical for your protection as well as that of your consumers. While the overarching lesson from the case of the Indian Restaurant should be consumer protection, its consequences of a manslaughter verdict for the owner/chef and the take-out manager should cause the executives and managers of any facility with less-than-thorough allergen controls to, literally, shake in their shoes. It was a 15-year-old that died, but with the manslaughter verdict, the lives of the 38- and 40-year-old managers are essentially over as well. This incident may have occurred in England, but the U.S. Department of Justice has become just as merciless in its indictments of those who fail to protect the public, particularly if a death occurs.
Having a product with undeclared allergens make it to market can have numerous causes – from lack of supplier disclosure to cross-contact on the manufacturing line to an employee mixing mistake to shipping a product with the wrong label to a food vendor error to consumer mishandling. It can happen anywhere along the food chain for any of a variety of reasons, but if the reason for a death from an unlabeled food allergen is traced back to you, you, too, could be convicted of manslaughter.
While this is a “wake-up call” regarding allergens, it does continue to magnify the drum beat of criminal prosecutions and convictions in relation to food safety incidents. I sometimes find myself thinking when reading a 483 or some other inspection report, “Will the Department of Justice get involved in this one?” It does not happen often, but when it does it is highly disruptive and very distressing. Mistakes happen in the food industry, but what I worry about is a clear disregard for warning signs that then turn out to be deadly. So as a message to the C-suite: Do keep this ongoing climate of criminal prosecutions in mind when looking at food safety issues.
About The Acheson Group (TAG)
Led by Dr. David Acheson, TAG is a food safety consulting group that provides guidance and expertise worldwide for companies throughout the food supply chain. With in-depth industry knowledge combined with real-world experience, TAG's team of food safety experts help companies more effectively mitigate risk, improve operational efficiencies, and ensure regulatory and standards compliance. Learn more at: www.AchesonGroup.com