The last time I saw my big sister Celia was at our leaving party in July 2017. My family was uprooting from the UK to Melbourne, Australia. She was full of life and looking forward to visiting us in our new home. But on 27 December that year, Celia went on a shopping trip in Bath and died of anaphylaxis after eating a contaminated vegan rainbow vegetable wrap bought from Pret a Manger that was labeled as dairy-free.
Celia was highly allergic to dairy and scrupulously avoided it in her diet. Last week, more than four and a half years later, the coroner at her inquest ruled that Celia’s death de ella was from anaphylaxis caused by the milk protein found in the contaminated dairy-free yogurt used in the wrap that she consumed that day.
When Celia died, I was already aware of the severity of her milk allergy because she’d suffered a first anaphylactic reaction in May 2017 from eating a cereal bar, which almost killed her, demonstrating just how severely allergic to milk she had become. Since that incident, I felt some comfort in knowing that she was so meticulous and careful about everything she ate.
Upon hearing the news of her death, I remember feeling very numb and shocked, and quite useless on the other side of the world. When I spoke to Celia’s husband, Andy, a few days later, we reflected on how careful Celia was when choosing what she could eat. We knew she would not have made a mistake. We vowed to uncover the truth and identify the source of the dairy contamination in the wrap.
The details that emerged were shocking and upsetting. Before hearing statements at the inquest, I had little appreciation of how unregulated the food standard was for “free from” products. As the details emerged about a lack of due diligence and testing, I felt my anger grow at almost everything Bethany Eaton – the founder and managing director of Planet Coconut, which had provided the contaminated yogurt to Pret a Manger – was saying. She repeatedly stated that she “trusted” the verbal assurances from Henry Gosling, the director of Coyo in Australia, that his HG1 stabilizer product used in the manufacture of the yoghurt was dairy-free.
Eaton accepted that the 25kg bags of stabilizer delivered to Planet Coconut from a manufacturer in Wales stated: “Manufactured in a factory that handles milk, eggs, cereals.” But she said Gosling had told her they “were making it in an allergy-free area.” She added: “I took his word on that and believed it. I wouldn’t have dreamed it contained dairy. I didn’t have any worries. I believed there was a separate facility or area or line that was entirely allergen free.”
In a statement read at the inquiry, Gosling said that under the licensing agreement, Planet Coconut was obliged to ensure the HG1 it used was dairy free.
Now that the inquest is over, our family – supported by Leigh Day solicitors – want to see change for Celia. The coroner’s ruling gave us all validation. I always believed Celia had done everything she could to ensure the food was safe to eat as she had so much to lose. She would never take risks with food.
The coroner made it clear that Planet Coconut had in their possession documents that flagged the risk of cross contamination, but that this risk was not passed up the supply chain to Pret. Pret confirmed that it had been known that the yogurt might have contained milk, it would not have used the ingredient. In other words, Celia would still be alive today.
I take some comfort in believing that Celia’s death will not be in vain. the coroner has confirmed she will be providing a prevention-of-future-deaths report to highlight suggestions that had been made during Celia’s inquest to protect allergy sufferers. This brings us considerable hope.
One main consideration is whether a system of mandatory testing for all ingredients in a supply chain should be implemented. “Free from” should mean a guaranteed absence of the allergen from the food and not open to interpretation by the manufacturer. There should be a “free from” certification mark that can be earned and applied to products to show regular testing, auditing and controls. This would provide visible assurance that the product has been assessed to the British Retail Consortium’s standard and that the claim is verified and rigorously maintained.
Food labeling in Australia, where I live, is generally better than in the UK. All allergens are identified using Voluntary Incidental Trace Allergen Labeling (Vital) that provide a standardized allergen risk assessment process for the food industry. the state of Victoria requires that all anaphylaxis cases presenting to hospital for treatment are reported to the Department of Health. This ensures samples are taken immediately to identify the source of the reaction and uncover any possible dangers. The coroner has recommended that food-related anaphylaxis should be registered as a notifiable disease in the UK, which would serve the same purpose.
We know how and why Celia died, and food companies should be acting now. There is no need for food business operators to wait for the coroner’s final report, or for the Food Standards Agency to consult on implementation. What is good for food companies’ customers is good for their business.
As Celia’s younger brother, I miss the feeling of having her looking out for me. She always had time for me and was so supportive. She would bring her smile from her wherever she went and she loved to help others. She would take some comfort in knowing the cause of her death de ella was being used to deliver improvements in the lives of all food allergy suffers. Allergy suffers should not have to gamble with their lives every time they eat out or try a product that claims to be safe.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism