MORE than a quarter of takeaway meals labelled nut free were contaminated with peanuts during test purchases - some at a level which may prove fatal for allergy sufferers.
The investigation was carried out by North Yorkshire Trading Standards at takeaways, restaurants and cafes across the county and follows the death of 38-year-old Paul Wilson from an allergic reaction.
Officers were shocked to find that of 47 samples of food labelled peanut free, more than one in four, were contaminated by peanuts in varying degrees.
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However, some were so tainted they were classed as life-threatening for those with nut allergies.
“For those affected it can literally be a matter of life and death," said Chris Metcalfe, North Yorkshire County Council's executive member for trading standards.
“These are extremely concerning findings and we will be following up these sample tests with advice or further formal investigations.
“We cannot stress strongly enough that people with a known peanut allergy must seek absolute assurances that meals do not contain peanuts or traces of peanuts.
There is growing concern that almond products imported into the UK are being adulterated with cheaper peanut substitutes, prompting the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to alert local authority food inspectors.
While some people suffer an allergic reaction if they eat any type of nut, others can safely eat almonds grown on trees and are only affected by peanuts grown in soil.
Trading standards officials have been assisting North Yorkshire Police in its investigation into a takeaway in Easingwold after Mr Wilson's death in January after he returned home with a meal.
It is thought when the bar manager at the Oak Tree Inn, Helperby, near Thirsk, suffered anaphylactic shock after he began eating and tried to reach his adrenaline auto-injector, which relaxes lung muscles and stimulates the heartbeat, but collapsed in his bathroom.
Police arrested and later bailed two men, aged 38 and 51, last month in connection with the incident.
Mr Wilson's death follows a separate case in Stanhope, County Durham, when 31-year-old gardener Derek Stephenson died after eating a few mouthfuls of chicken tikka last September when he had an allergic reaction. He had been diagnosed with a nut allergy aged four.
Trading standards officers in County Durham have confirmed they too are planning a similar inspection of food outlets together with education sessions for business owners.
Lindsey McManus, deputy chief executive of Allergy UK, said: “It is always devastating to hear of a death of someone with a food allergy after food has become contaminated.
“It only highlights the need for better training for those in the food industry to the risks involved when providing meals for those with a food allergy."
New regulations are due to come into force in December over advice on allergens in foods in all food outlets together with allergen labelling on pre-packed food.
It will be the responsibility of all catering establishments to ensure staff are trained to identify food allergy risks and to support customers with an allergy.
A spokeswoman for FSA said: “We are working with the catering industry, local authorities and allergy groups to raise awareness of this problem, and we expect action to be taken against any businesses responsible for deliberately selling adulterated products.”