Testimony is being heard in an inquest into the death of Celia Marsh, the 42-year-old mother of five who suffered a fatal anaphylactic reaction on December 27, 2017 after eating a “Rainbow Super Veg” flatbread she purchased from a Pret A Manger sandwich outlet.
Ms Marsh, a dental nurse from Melksham who was enjoying a post-Christmas shopping trip with her husband and three of her daughters, had a severe allergy to milk. She collapsed in the street after eating the sandwich bought from the chain’s store in Bath.
The inquest had previously heard that traces of dairy were detected in the sandwich that was labeled as vegan and hence dairy-free.
Pret A Manger has maintained the dairy-free yogurt from COYO they were using was contaminated with milk protein. COYO, had issued a recall in 2018 due to undeclared milk in their yogurt.
Bethany Eaton, the managing director of Planet Coconut — the exclusive manufacturer for COYO in the UK — testified at the inquest.
Said Ms Eaton:
Dairy-free is something I am passionate about which is why we bought the CoYo licence.
I didn’t ever dream it would contain dairy after he [Henry Gosling] sold me a licence.
He said it was made in an allergen-free environment. He had a very good relationship with Tate & Lyle.
That was the reassurance he gave me and I respected that.
The senior coroner, Maria Voisin, asked Ms Eaton whether she ever considered testing the ingredients.
Replied Ms Eaton:
We never tested the product because I was assured and believed it was being made in an allergen-free environment.
I was told there was a separate line or facility that was entirely allergen-free and that’s what we relied upon.
She testified that since the death of Ms Marsh, all ingredients are now being tested.
She started crying on cross-examination by barrister Jeremy Hyam representing the Marsh family.
I had a dairy-free facility and I had ingredients that I believed were dairy-free from the assurances I was given.
I did not believe our product contained dairy. He sold me a licence for a dairy-free yogurt and I had to buy the product from him.
He was very protective of his product and rightly or wrongly I respected that. I did not believe that Henry and Tate & Lyle would produce a product that contained dairy in it.
We all believed there was no risk because it was made in an allergy-free environment.
I am a bit angry and upset about this.
I didn’t just rely on his word, I relied on the fact that I had been sold a licenSe for a dairy-free product and it has been manufactured by Tate & Lyle with CoYo and created a very popular dairy-free yogurt product in Australia.
I regret buying a licence and trusting the word of someone else and that’s what I regret.
I regret that the inquiries I made were not with Henry Gosling and I relied upon his assurances and that’s my regret.
A word about the potential for allergen cross-contact, where an allergen is inadvertently introduced into a food product due to manufacturing processes.
The concerning quote from the COYO representative’s testimony is: “I was told there was a separate line or facility that was entirely allergen-free and that’s what we relied upon.”
There is a big difference between a facility that is entirely free of a specific allergen — where that allergen is never present — and a manufacturing line that is purportedly allergen-free.
The fact that an allergen is processed in the facility raises the risk of cross-contamination considerably. Ingredients can be mistakenly swapped for one another and trace amounts of an allergen can be carried by employees on their clothing or waft through the air to be deposited on machinery and surfaces.
Had Ms Eaton understood manufacturing practices with regard to allergens before getting into the business, we suspect she would have performed the necessary due diligence to ensure her product was safe for people with milk allergy. That would have involved greater scrutiny of her suppliers and testing her yogurt for milk trace.
Unfortunately, it took the death of Celia Marsh to educate her.