The family of a woman with a severe dairy allergy who died after eating a “vegan” Pret a Manger wrap contaminated with milk protein have warned that more people will die unless comprehensive testing throughout the food supply chain and better labelling are introduced.
Celia Marsh’s family also said they believed the 42-year-old dental nurse would still be alive if a company that made a coconut yoghurt added to the wrap had informed Pret there was a risk it could have been contaminated because it was made in a factory that used milk.
Marsh, from Melksham in Wiltshire, died two hours after eating a “super-veg rainbow flatbread” bought from a Pret in Bath during a post-Christmas shopping trip in 2017.
Maria Voisin, the senior coroner for Avon, concluded that the wrap contained a “dairy-free coconut yoghurt alternative” supplied to Pret by the Kent company Planet Coconut. The coroner said the yoghurt included milk protein, which caused Marsh’s anaphylaxis.
Giving a narrative conclusion, Voisin said: “A product which is marked dairy-free should be free from dairy.”
She said the contamination arose because a stabiliser in the yoghurt called HG1 had become contaminated during its manufacture at Tate & Lyle’s plant in north Wales.
The inquest heard that Tate & Lyle sent the HG1 to Planet Coconut in bags making clear they were not made in an allergen-free area and Planet Coconut had documentation that flagged the risk. But Voisin said Planet Coconut had not highlighted this risk to Pret.
The coroner said she would write to the Food Standards Agency raising concerns about the labelling on products claiming to be dairy-free and the testing process.
Outside court, Marsh’s daughter Ashleigh Grice, 27, said Marsh was “our rock, the soul of the family”.
She continued: “On that terrible day she trusted the labelling in the Pret a Manger store. But the vegan wrap had been contaminated. The contents were poisonous to her.”
Grice said there was a “woeful lack of testing” in the food supply chain and too much “vague labelling” such as “may contain”. She also claimed there was a failure in the healthcare system to help people with serious food allergies.
She added: “It is now clear to us that if Planet Coconut had passed on the warnings in their possession to Pret a Manger about the risk of cross-contamination, Mum would still be alive today. Mum’s death, like so many allergy deaths, was entirely avoidable.”
Marsh’s husband, Andy, 51, said: “Celia meant the world to us all. She could brighten up your worst days with just one smile. She would look at you with her blue eyes and you just felt better. She was a great mum.”
He added: “I want to see testing at every stage of the process to make sure nothing gets through the cracks.”
Kayleigh Grice, 20, said she was also shopping with her mother in Bath on the day she died. “We split to go for separate lunches. I do often think that if we had maybe gone with her, then maybe she wouldn’t have eaten the sandwich and she would still be there now.”
Tanya Ednan-Laperouse, whose 15-year-old daughter, Natasha, died in 2016 after eating a Pret baguette containing sesame seeds, said: “Celia died one year after we lost our own daughter Natasha, who also died from an allergic reaction to food she considered safe to eat. We need urgent reform of the flawed and misleading precautionary allergen labelling system.”
The Marsh family and Ednan-Laperouse called for anaphylaxis to be recognised as a notifiable disease. “This would result in instant precautionary product recalls, which could save lives, and an accurate picture of the true toll of the numbers of serious incidents and fatalities,” said Ednan-Laperouse.
Pano Christou, the chief executive of Pret a Manger, said: “As the coroner made clear, Planet Coconut had information which should have alerted them that their yoghurt may have contained milk and this information was not passed on to Pret. It goes without saying that if Pret had ever known that the yoghurt may have contained milk, we would have never used the ingredient. We have taken significant steps forward with our suppliers and labelling policies since 2017.”
In a statement, Planet Coconut said it bought a licence from a company called CoYo in Australia to manufacture and sell a dairy-free coconut yoghurt in the UK. It said it was obliged to buy the HG1 from CoYo and was given “many assurances” by CoYo that the stabiliser was made in a dairy-free production environment.
CoYo said during the inquest that under the licensing agreement, Planet Coconut was obliged to ensure the HG1 it used was dairy-free.