Eating at the Commons could kill me

Jane Merrick has to steer clear of nuts, and so should food firms

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The Independent Online

I love food. I could eat for a living – in fact, I do, in that my job involves lunching with politicians. But I know that my next meal could kill me. It is truly an occupational hazard. Like Jo Swinson, the Employment minister who was last week admitted to hospital with anaphylactic shock after inadvertently eating peanuts, I have a nut allergy.

Going into anaphylactic shock is horrifying. You bite into something you think is going to be delicious. Yet it doesn't taste like food. There is no taste. Like eating a really hot curry, you can feel only burning in your mouth, then your throat, and then you feel you can't breathe. You cannot spit it out, because the anaphylaxis has been triggered already. Only antihistamine, or, if severe, adrenaline, will help.

For as long as I can remember I've had a nut allergy. In the Seventies, when I was a child, I would tell my parents I had an itchy mouth whenever I ate walnuts or hazelnuts, although people hadn't really heard of nut allergies then, so my teachers thought I was just being fussy. I largely managed to avoid eating nuts until 26 March 2006, when I was served a nut and herb-encrusted rack of lamb, even though I'd specifically told the restaurant that I had an allergy. It was a lunch with Charles Clarke and other women political journalists, and as the then home secretary launched into his speech, I was carted off to hospital, partly embarrassed, partly terrified. I was given adrenaline and steroids, and I was fine.

I now carry an Epipen with a life-saving adrenaline shot, but I am anxious about my young daughter. I will only know if she has inherited my condition once she has eaten a nut, a prospect which fills me with terror: the way antibodies work, she cannot be tested before then.

Restaurants are now much more aware of nut allergies – the ones in Westminster are excellent, probably due to my nagging the waiters every time I sit down. Other people's home cooking is a no-no – as Ms Swinson found out when she ate a chocolate crispy cake at a charity bake sale in her constituency. Supermarkets and food manufacturers are aware, but there are varying degrees of sensible labelling. Some chains and producers are apparently so fearful of being sued that they slap "may contain nuts" on nearly all of their food. This would be fine if it were just cakes and biscuits – nut-free ones produced on the same factory lines as the peanut varieties. But there are some ludicrous examples: both Asda and Morrison's own-brand ketchup is labelled "may contain nuts and seeds", while Tesco warns that its organic salted butter – it can verify that it's organic but can't rule out contamination – and all of its tinned vegetables might contain nuts. Most absurdly, Tesco's own brand Indian tonic water reads "Cannot guarantee nut free".

If I followed every warning on supermarket food, I would never eat. Contamination can happen, and the excellent Anaphylaxis Campaign runs product alerts. The horsemeat scandal underlined how lax some suppliers are. Rather than issuing blanket "may contain" or, even vaguer, "made in a factory that contains nuts" disclaimers, supermarkets and food producers should be stricter in their monitoring, and more specific in their labelling.

Ms Swinson survived, and although retailers were not to blame for her scare, I am sure she is as aware as I am of bad labelling. As a minister in the Department for Business, she can now use her influence and profile to argue for better, more accurate labels, and no more that are completely nuts.

Jane Merrick is Political Editor of The Independent on Sunday;