Pret-A-Manger death: inquest finds mum Celia Marsh died after eating dairy-contaminated vegan wrap from Pret
Celia’s daughter Ashley said: “We miss her every day and will always carry the unbearable pain of her loss, never to share her love and laughter again.”
The daughter of a mum-of-five with an acute dairy allergy who died after eating a Pret vegan wrap contaminated with traces of milk said her death was “entirely avoidable”.
Ashleigh Grice, the daughter of Celia Marsh, who described her mum as the “soul of our family”, spoke out after a coroner delivered her conclusions after a two-week inquest into Mrs Marsh’s death.
Mrs Marsh, 42, a dental nurse from Melksham, Wiltshire, suffered anaphylaxis shortly after eating a super-veg rainbow flatbread from Pret A Manger’s store in Bath, Somerset, on 27 December in 2017.
The coconut yoghurt used as dressing from the Australian brand CoYo, which was licenced for manufacture in the UK to British firm Planet Coconut had traces of milk protein in it, senior coroner Maria Voisin concluded after a two-week inquest into Mrs Marsh’s death.
What happened to Celia Marsh?
Mrs Marsh had been on a post-Christmas shopping trip with her husband Andy and three of her daughters when she went into Pret at around 2pm. She was declared dead less than two hours later.
The inquest at Avon Coroner’s Court heard the mother-of-five “religiously avoided” dairy products following a near-fatal allergic reaction a few months earlier after which she needed 15 shots of adrenalin.
The whole of the wrap had been eaten, and the pot of CoYo yoghurt used to make it was thrown away before Bath and North East Somerset Council began its investigation.
Testing on other pots found small quantities of dairy protein in the product, with traces found in another rainbow wrap.
Although the court heard evidence that Mrs Marsh was an asthma sufferer and used an inhaler, Maria Voisin, the senior coroner for Avon, concluded she died from anaphylaxis.
The inquest heard that the yoghurt contained a starch that was manufactured in a facility that also handled dairy, and that it carried a warning that there was a risk of cross-contamination.
What were the coroner’s findings?
Ms Voisin concluded that Mrs Marsh died from “anaphylaxis triggered by the consumption of milk protein”.
The coroner told the hearing: “She had a known allergy to milk. On that day in Bath city centre she had a super-veg rainbow flatbread which she believed was safe to eat.
“She suffered an anaphylaxis caused by milk protein in the yoghurt in the wrap. This caused her to collapse and, despite the efforts of medical teams involved, she died.”
Ms Voisin continued: “Celia Marsh was allergic to milk. She died when she suffered anaphylaxis caused by consumption of a wrap contaminated with milk protein.
“She was not aware that the wrap contained milk protein. The wrap contained a product with was labelled as dairy-free yoghurt alternative but, despite this, contained milk protein which was the cause of Celia’s anaphylaxis.
“The contamination arose because an ingredient in the yoghurt called HG1 (a starch) had been cross-contaminated with milk protein during its manufacture.
“The manufacturer of the dairy-free yoghurt had in its possession documentation that flagged this risk but this risk was not passed on to its customers.”
What has her family said?
Speaking after the conclusion into the death of her mother Celia Marsh at Ashton Court in Bristol, Ashleigh Grice said: “Our mum Celia was our rock, she was the soul of our family, she wasn’t just our mum, wife, daughter and sister, she was the soul of our family.
“We miss her every day and will always carry the unbearable pain of her loss, never to share her love and laughter again or to see her as the doting nan she would have been.”
Ms Grice continued: “It is now almost five years since our mum Celia was taken from us, she knew she had a serious food allergy – because of that constant fear mum was extremely cautious in all she ate, checking every label, often triple checking, for dairy.
“On that terrible day she trusted the ‘dairy free’ labelling in the Pret a Manger store, but the vegan wrap had been contaminated with milk protein.
“The contents was poisonous to her and she collapsed in the street.”
Ms Grice criticised the food industry for its reliance on “vague” food labelling regarding allergens, instead of implementing a strict testing regime.
She went on to say: “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,” she said.
“Mum’s death, like so many other allergy deaths, was entirely avoidable.”
What had been said during the inquest?
During the two-week inquest a chemist acknowledged the quantity of dairy in the wrap was too low to be measured with any degree of accuracy, but he believed it definitely contained milk.
Paul Hancock, the analytical chemist for Bath and North East Somerset Council, said testing of the rainbow veg wrap found 0.55mg/kg of milk protein – below the level at which it can be reliably measured by accepted testing procedures.
But testing by Mr Hancock at a Worcester Scientific Services laboratory on two other pots of yoghurt found 3.1mg/kg of milk protein in one and 3.4mg/kg in another.
Mr Hancock said: “Using the supporting evidence of other analysis, looking at the whole product, the fact CoYo yoghurt had milk in it, looking at the whole picture with the other ingredients, I think it would be reasonable to deduce there was milk in the super veg rainbow wrap.
It is thought the contamination stemmed from the HG1 starch in the yoghurt supplied by Tate and Lyle plc.
Bags of the starch carried the warning “manufactured in a factory that handles milk, eggs, cereals containing gluten, sulphur dioxide and sulphites”, but Bethany Eaton, the managing director of Planet Coconut, said she was unaware of the risk.
Mrs Eaton said she had been assured the yoghurt’s ingredients were safe for people with allergens by CoYo founder Henry Gosling.
“I didn’t ever dream it would contain dairy after he (Henry Gosling) sold me a licence,” she said.
“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 coroner asked Mrs Eaton whether she considered testing the starch.
She replied: “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 said that since Mrs Marsh’s death all products are now tested, irrespective of the source.
What has Pret said?
Pret was charged with food safety failures after Mrs Marsh’s death but the prosecution was dropped due to lack of evidence.
The inquest heard that Pret sandwiches were displayed next to a warning stating it could not guarantee its products were free from allergens.
Guy Meakin, interim managing director of Pret A Manger had told the inquest: “If we had known it had contained milk products we would never have used it.”
He said all products are now labelled with ingredients and Pret had introduced allergen risk assessments.
Speaking after the conclusion of the inquest into the death of Celia Marsh, Pret A Manger chief executive Pano Christou said: “As a father and husband, I can only imagine how distressing this has been for Celia’s children and family. Our deepest sympathies remain with everyone who knew and loved Celia.
“We fully support the coroner’s findings. As the coroner made clear, Planet Coconut had information which should have alerted them that their Coyo 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 Coyo yoghurt may have contained milk, we would have never used the ingredient.
“On Pret’s part, we have taken significant steps forward with our suppliers and labelling policies since 2017.
“Through the Pret allergy plan, we made a clear commitment to lead the industry in developing new policies for people with food allergies. We will continue to do everything we can to help every customer get the information they need to make the right choice for them.”
What has Planet Coconut said?
A spokesman for Planet Coconut said the company had “co-operated fully” with the inquest.
The company believed that the yoghurt was made in a “dairy-free production environment”, he added.
“Our thoughts remain as ever with the family of Mrs Marsh,” the spokesman said.