Pret A Manger was not conducting its own checks on manufacturers supplying dairy-free products for its vegan ranges, an inquest has heard.
Avon Coroner’s Court is investigating the death of Celia Marsh, who suffered a fatal allergic reaction on December 27 2017, shortly after eating a super-veg rainbow flatbread.
Mrs Marsh, 42, a dental nurse from Melksham, Wiltshire, had a severe dairy allergy and collapsed in the street after eating the sandwich bought from the chain’s store in Bath, Somerset.
The mother-of-five had been on a post-Christmas shopping trip with her husband and three of her daughters at the time.
The wrap had contained yoghurt which was supposed to be vegan but was later found to contain traces of dairy protein.
The yoghurt was produced by Planet Coconut, which is the UK manufacturer and distributor of products developed by Australia-based yoghurt company CoYo.
Mrs Marsh’s husband Andy said his wife had “religiously” avoided dairy after suffering a near-fatal incident a few months previously in which she needed 15 shots of adrenalin.
Pret was charged with food safety failures after Mrs Marsh’s death, but the prosecution was later dropped due to lack of evidence.
All Pret sandwiches are displayed with a warning stating they are made onsite in a busy kitchen, and that the company cannot guarantee they are suitable for people with allergies.
What did the trading standards officer say?
Kirsty Langford, a trading standards officer for Bath and North East Somerset Council, told the inquest Pret A Manger had not apparently conducted its own audit of the claims made by Planet Coconut.
“When a dairy-free claim is made on a product you expect some sort of testing to be taking place,” she said.
“That may not itself be the responsibility of Pret A Manger but it would probably be Pret’s responsibility to ensure their supplier was undertaking some sort of testing.”
Ms Langford continued: “When we went back to Planet Coconut we weren’t supplied with any test certificate and we weren’t sure that Pret had been supplied with any either – we haven’t been supplied with any evidence of that.
“That becomes more important when there is a dairy-free claim on the product, that is when you would expect finished product testing to make sure that ‘free-from’ claim can be verified.”
Ms Langford said that ordinarily, a free-from claim on a product would be supported by a risk assessment by the retailer checking all the processes and ingredients in the supply chain.
She said that Planet Coconut had said it was testing its product for allergens every year, and added that how often a product should be tested was not enshrined in law.
“There is nothing in law to say how often you should be testing, there is nothing in law to say you should be testing every batch for example,” Ms Langford said.
“With a small supplier like Planet Coconut it would be less often than a bigger (company).”
She added: “I would expect Pret to check that testing was being undertaken through their supplier – there were supplier audits being undertaken (by Pret) but I don’t think the audit picked up on the testing of the product.”
What did the investigation find?
An investigation into Planet Coconut found the yoghurt contained few ingredients – primarily coconut cream and ‘HG1’ starch supplied by sugar giant Tate & Lyle.
The starch was identified as the possible source of the contamination.
“Tate & Lyle had never said the HG1 starch was suitable for a dairy-free claim,” Ms Langford said.
A bag of the starch had the warning: “Manufactured in a factory that handles milk, eggs, cereals containing gluten, sulphur dioxide and sulphites.”
Ms Langford said Tate & Lyle had said the information concerning the risk of contamination in its products was passed to Planet Coconut, while Planet Coconut said it was not.
The court heard evidence that the trace of milk in the flatbread was so small, that it would only be expected to have an effect on around 5% of people with the most acute dairy allergy.
The inquest also heard that food standards officers found no evidence cross contamination had occurred within Pret’s Bath store’s kitchen.
The inquest is taking place at Ashton Court Mansion House in Bristol and is expected to last between two and three weeks.
Among the interested parties are Bath and North East Somerset Council, Australian-based coconut yoghurt company CoYo, and its UK manufacturer and distributor, Planet Coconut.