62-year-old Marcelle Williams, a retired occupational therapist who has been coping with a severe allergy to wheat for 30 years, has learned to be cautious about the foods she buys.
Last December, after completing her shift at Queen’s Hospital in Romford, Essex, she was famished and needed a snack to carry her through the bus ride home.
She stopped in at a local Marks & Spencer to buy a cinnamon swirl from the store’s “Made Without” line consisting of products that are free of common allergens like nuts, dairy, eggs, and wheat.
“I love their cinnamon swirls and often buy them,” said Ms Williams, who retired from the National Health Service two years ago but returned to help during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But shortly after biting into the swirl on the bus ride home, she realized something was wrong as she began to feel the telltale signs of anaphylaxis, a severe, life-threatening reaction to a food, environmental substance, or insect venom. Her lips began to swell and her skin started itching all over.
She quickly administered her epinephrine auto-injector which she carries with her.
‘The trouble is, when I suffer anaphylaxis, my hands and fingers swell up quickly and become like claws,’ said Ms Williams. “They get so swollen it makes injecting myself with an EpiPen impossible.”
She phoned her partner, who met her at the next bus stop and drove her to the emergency room where medical staff administered more epinephrine, antihistamines, and albuterol.
Said Ms Williams:
Shortly after arriving at hospital, I passed out. 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.
When I woke up 20 minutes later, I also had a mask over my face carrying oxygen into my lungs as my oxygen levels were low.
She was discharged later that night and prescribed an eight-day course of steroids to suppress any remaining inflammation.
After a few days of recovery, Ms Williams and her partner visited the store and found cinnamon swirls made with wheat stacked on the Made Without shelves.
I was fuming. The two products are displayed side-by-side, with no partition between the shelving units.
The shelf with normal cinnamon swirls was full so somebody had moved the surplus over to the “free-from” shelf.
This was an accident waiting to happen and when I complained to M&S, I got an apology and a £50 voucher. It barely covered the cost of the bra that doctors had to cut off with a pair of scissors to save my life.
In a statement, Marks & Spencer admitted the wheat-containing buns were in the wrong place but insisted the cinnamon swirl pack “was clearly labeled as containing wheat” and the Made Without range is in a “specific bold design” to distinguish allergen-containing foods.
We at SnackSafely.com are grateful Ms Williams survived to tell her story and we send her and her partner our best wishes.
We urge our readers coping with food allergies to never purchase an unwrapped product unless they are absolutely sure of how the product was made and that there was no opportunity for cross-contact with their allergens of concern while the product was handled, displayed, and served.
When purchasing a wrapped food product — even if you’ve eaten it a thousand times before — always read the label before consuming to verify the product’s ingredients omit your allergens and that no precautionary warnings for your allergens are displayed. Manufacturers change the ingredients and procedures surrounding the manufacture of food products more often than you might suspect.
Last but not least, always take two epinephrine auto-injectors along everywhere, every time! We shudder to think what would have happened to Ms Williams had she not had her epinephrine on hand and administered it when she first suspected anaphylaxis.