A FEW years ago a friend of mine, who was particularly partial to Chinese takeaways, had an unexpected violent reaction to one of her favourite meals.

She went into anaphylactic shock, quickly developing swallowing and breathing difficulties and a rapid heart rate. As a nurse, she recognised what was happening and was able, with help, to get to Kidderminster Hospital within a few minutes for treatment.

It was a close call and as a result of this experience she discovered she had developed an allergy to sesame products, which are used a lot in Chinese cuisine.

Afterwards, she was still able to eat Oriental food but made sure any takeaway or restaurant staff were told not to use sesame products in the dishes she ordered.

This sort of experience is not uncommon in the UK. About 2 million people in Britain live with food allergies and on average 10 people die and about 5,000 are hospitalised each year following an allergic reaction.

But newly introduced EU rules now mean people living with allergies can buy food and eat out with greater confidence that it won’t end with a trip to their local hospital.

Restaurants and takeaways are now required by law to tell customers if any of the main 14 food allergen ingredients are in the food they serve. These include well known allergens like peanuts, shellfish and milk as well as less widely recognised allergens like mustard and lupin seeds which are often used in flour.

And it is hoped better labelling and information will help to reduce the number of reactions caused by people accidentally eating food to which they are allergic.

According to the Food Standards Agency, the majority of these avoidable deaths and hospitalisations are caused by incorrect information being given about allergenic ingredients in foods when eating out.

Dr Tom Dawson, Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust consultant paediatrician who runs allergy clinics, welcomed the new regulations on labelling and providing information about food ingredients.

“Previously packaging was difficult to read and parents often made mistakes. It was extremely difficult for people with allergies because it did not just affect the food they bought in the supermarket, but it was what they bought in the deli or restaurant.

“This is a simple measure which could have a significant effect on the quality of someone’s life. This new measure is definitely a good thing and it will make shopping for families much easier. Shopping for a child with allergies adds about 30 per cent more time to a shopping trip because of reading all the labels carefully.

“Ingredients in things you have bought before can change so you have to make sure you constantly check the packaging. It is a nightmare.”

He said there was still work to do on food labelling because some terms, like “contains traces of...” are vague and some ingredients like peanut dust are easily transferred from one product to another when produced in the same factory.

He said the number of people suffering from allergies locally is on the increase. There were no paediatric allergy clinics in this area five and a half years ago when he arrived. “My clinics are packed now and I get lots of referrals for food allergies,” he said.

Although no-one has pinpointed the reason for the increase with hard evidence, one of the theories for increasing allergic reactions is, because we now live in an increasing clean and healthy world, our immune systems are finding ways to keep active.

“One theory is that our immune system is finding other things to keep it busy. In other words an allergy is a redirection of the immune system,” said Dr Dawson. He said there is some indication that people who grew up on farms and in large families were less likely to get allergies than those brought up in urban environments with fewer siblings.

• The 14 top food allergens are: Peanuts; milk; crustaceans like prawns, crab and lobster; eggs; cereals containing gluten, molluscs like mussels, cockles and oysters; other nuts such as almonds, cashews and Brazil nuts; fish; celery; sesame seeds; soya; mustard; lupin and sulphur dioxide.