A teenager with a dairy allergy who died after eating chicken coated with buttermilk at a Byron burger restaurant had been “reassured” by the wording of the menu, a coroner has ruled.
Owen Carey had a fatal reaction after eating a chicken burger while celebrating his 18th birthday with his family on 22 April 2017.
He collapsed alongside the London Eye, less than an hour after first experiencing an allergic reaction to his meal, and was taken to St Thomas’ Hospital, where he died.
Southwark Coroner’s Court heard how Mr Carey, of Crowborough, East Sussex, did not realise the chicken had been marinated because the buttermilk ingredient was not listed on the menu.
Assistant coroner Briony Ballard concluded on Friday that the teenager died from a food-induced allergic reaction to his meal at a Byron branch at the O2 Arena, in Greenwich, London.
The coroner said Mr Carey had grown up with severe allergies to dairy, wheat and peanut products and was used to going into restaurants and making clear to waiting staff that he had these allergies.
She described his death as a “tragedy” and said Mr Carey had told staff at the outlet about his allergies and he was reassured by the menu, which did not mention buttermilk and allergens.
“The menu was reassuring in that it made no reference to any marinade or potential allergenic ingredient in the food selected,” she said.
“The deceased was not informed that there were allergens in the order.”
Mr Carey ordered a plain, skinny grilled chicken burger with fries, but unbeknown to him – and the member of staff who took his order – it was marinated in buttermilk.
When he started to eat his meal, his lips began to tingle and he became progressively more ill. Mr Carey suffered stomach pains before he collapsed into cardiac arrest.
Barrister Clodagh Bradley, representing the Carey family, had argued at the inquest that the omission of buttermilk from the menu could make a customer “believe” it was a plain chicken breast.
The family described Mr Carey as their “shining light” and said verbal communication of allergies in busy restaurants is “not good enough” and called for an “Owen’s law” for better allergen labelling.
Mr Carey’s sister Emma Kocher said outside the coroner’s court: “We want restaurants to have to display clear allergen information on each individual dish on their menus.
“The food industry should put the safety of their customers first and be proactive in protecting those with allergies.
“It is simply not good enough to have a policy which relies on verbal communication between the customer and their server which often takes place in a busy, noisy restaurant, where the turnover of staff is high and many of their customers are very young.
“This leaves far too much room for error on an issue we know all too well can cost lives.”
The family’s lawyer Thomas Jervis said there was a “failure to act” despite Mr Carey telling staff about his allergy, and that current regulations were “not fit for purpose”.
“It cannot be right that there is such room for human error on an issue that could be fatal,” he said.
“There are millions of people in the UK who suffer from food allergies, and it is only right that they are able to make fully formed decisions about the food that they eat.”
The coroner said Byron met industry standards in terms of the wording on the menu, but she added there was a breakdown in the system which allowed Mr Carey’s order to go through.
She concluded the verbal training the firm gave in terms of handling allergen orders may not “catch the less diligent staff”.
Byron chief executive Simon Wilkinson said in a statement the business takes allergies “extremely seriously” and has “robust procedures in place” and trains staff “to respond in the right way”.
“It is a matter of great regret and sadness that our high standards of communicating with our customers were not met during Owen’s visit,” he said.
“We believe we always did our best to meet our responsibilities but we know that this will be of no comfort to Owen’s family.
“We have heard what the coroner said about the need to communicate about allergies and it is clear that the current rules and requirements are not enough and the industry needs to do more.
“We will make it our priority to work with our colleagues across the restaurant industry to ensure that standards and levels of awareness are improved.”
The parents of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, 15, who died in July 2016 after eating an unlabelled sesame seed Pret A Manger baguette, called Mr Carey’s inquest a “landmark judgment for millions of allergy sufferers in this country”.
In a statement, Nadim and Tanya Ednan-Laperouse said: “We have heard remarkable parallels between Owen and Natasha’s death.
“Owen’s death yet again highlights the inadequacy of food information in this country.”