Exclusive: Huge spike in severe allergic reactions to food and drinks bought in UK restaurants and takeaways

Have you ever wondered how many serious allergic reactions there have been because the food customers bought was not what they thought it was?

Well I have, and incredibly there is no central body collecting this sort of data. So we decided to collect some ourselves.

ITV News has written to every council in the UK asking them how many complaints about an allergic reaction they've had in the last three years.

The results are pretty eye-opening.

Some 258 councils responded to our request.

Seventy-eight of the cases in 2017 resulted in the customer going into anaphylactic shock.

They show that last year there were 368 complaints - that is more than double the number in 2015, which stood at 166.

Seventy-eight of the cases in 2017 resulted in the customer going into anaphylactic shock, which is the most severe and potentially life-threatening reaction, and three customers died.

Some councils haven't yet responded and of course these statistics are just the ones the councils know about - so it could be much worse.

The data we've collected simply illustrates the scale of the problem.

Buying food in restaurants, cafes and takeaways should be a simple, pleasurable thing. Even with a severe allergy and all the risks that involves, it surely should still be possible.

But for hundreds of customers out there, it wasn't. So what is going wrong?

In 2017 there were 368 complaints about allergic reactions. Credit: PA

I went out with Surrey and Buckinghamshire Trading Standards to see how they monitor restaurants and test whether the food they cook and sell to customers is what they say it is.

They have a dedicated allergy team who do just this - checking their policies and ensuring it is implanted correctly.

David Pickering, their manager, says the main problem they come across is that some restaurant owners have very little knowledge of allergens or how serious it can be.

Trading standards works with them, explaining the risks and giving them information on how to train staff.

There are of course those who don't comply and they are the ones who get prosecuted - that though, I'm told, is rare.

Some 258 councils responded to ITV News's request. Credit: PA

The problem it seems is twofold.

Smaller food outlets who prepare food on site can taken advantage of a loophole in the law whereby they don't have to list all the ingredients on the food.

This is how Natasha Ednan-Laperouse ended up eating a baguette from Pret a Manger which contained sesame seed. She didn't know it was in the bread.

The question here is, should the law change?

The government has said it is reviewing this law. Michael Gove has met with Natasha's parents, and I understand we'll hear more on this in the coming months.

The second problem is restaurants and how the ingredients in meals are communicated to customers.

Our data proves that many of the customers because ill because of miscommunication.

Professor Chris Elliott from Queen's University says the onus is on the restaurant, they have to be aware of all the ingredients in each meal and pass it on to the customer if they enquire about allergens.

The chef, the waiters, the bar staff all need to be trained and given the full facts.

Natasha Ednan-Laperouse died from a reaction to sesame seeds. Credit: PA

That is where the problems lie. Is training good enough? Do restaurant workers take this seriously enough? And is everyone fully trained, given the transient nature of restaurant work?

Professor Elliott argues you can have all the regulation in the world but if it isn't implanted properly there's no point in having it all.

I've spoken to a number of families who have lost daughters and sons after a serious allergic reaction.

They all want something to change to save other families from having to go through what they have.

If these figures prove anything, it's that this is not a small problem, it's big and it's getting bigger.

A government spokesperson said: "It is essential that all UK consumers have complete trust in the food they are eating, which is why we take the provision of allergen information extremely seriously.

"We are working closely with the FSA on a review into strengthening the current allergens framework, and intend to launch a public consultation on allergen labelling early in the new year."