JThe last time I saw my big sister Celia was at our going away party in July 2017. My family was in the process of being uprooted from the UK to Melbourne, Australia. She was full of life and looked forward to visiting us in our new home. But on December 27 that year, Celia went shopping in Bath and died of anaphylaxis after eating a contaminated vegan rainbow vegetable wrap bought from Pret a Manger which was labeled dairy free.
Celia was very allergic to dairy products and scrupulously avoided them in her diet. Last week, more than four and a half years later, the coroner at his inquest ruled that Celia’s death was due to anaphylaxis caused by the milk protein found in contaminated non-dairy yogurt used in the wrap qu she consumed that day.
When Celia passed away I was already aware of the seriousness of her milk allergy as she had suffered a first anaphylactic reaction in May 2017 when eating a cereal bar, which almost killed her, demonstrating how badly she had become severely allergic to milk. Since that incident, I have felt some comfort knowing that she was so meticulous and attentive to everything she ate.
Upon hearing the news of his death, I remember feeling very numb and shocked, and utterly useless on the other side of the world. When I spoke to Celia’s husband, Andy, a few days later, we reflected on how carefully Celia chose what she could eat. We knew she wouldn’t have made a mistake. We have sworn to find out the truth and identify the source of the dairy contamination in the packaging.
The details that emerged were shocking and heartbreaking. Before hearing the statements during the investigation, I had little understanding of how unregulated the food standard was for “free” products. As details of a lack of due diligence and testing emerged, I felt my anger grow at almost everything that Bethany Eaton – the founder and CEO of Planet Coconut, who had provided the contaminated yogurt at Pret a Manger – said. She has repeatedly stated that she “trusts” the verbal assurances of Henry Gosling, the manager of Coyo in Australia, that its HG1 stabilizer product used in making yoghurt is dairy-free.
Eaton’s acknowledged that the 25kg bags of stabilizer delivered to Planet Coconut from a manufacturer in Wales stated: “Made in a factory that handles milk, eggs, cereals”. But she said Gosling told her they “do it in an allergy-free zone.” She added: “I took him at his word and I believed him. I would not have imagined that it contained dairy products. I had no worries. I believed there was a separate facility or area or line that was completely allergen free.
In a statement read at the inquest, Gosling said that under the license agreement, Planet Coconut was obligated to ensure the HG1 it used was dairy-free.
Now that the investigation is complete, our family – supported by Leigh Day’s lawyers – wants to see change for Celia. The coroner’s decision validated us all. I always believed that Celia did everything she could to make sure the food was safe to eat because she had so much to lose. She would never take risks with food.
The coroner clarified that Planet Coconut had documents in its possession indicating the risk of cross-contamination, but that this risk was not transmitted to Pret in the supply chain. Pret confirmed that if he had known yogurt could contain milk, he would not have used the ingredient. In other words, Celia would still be alive today.
I console myself with the thought that Celia’s death will not be in vain. The the coroner confirmed she will provide a report on preventing future deaths to highlight the suggestions that had been made during Celia’s investigation to protect allergy sufferers. This gives us considerable hope.
One of the key considerations is whether a system of mandatory testing for all ingredients in a supply chain should be in place. “Free from” should mean a guaranteed absence of the allergen in the food and not open to interpretation by the manufacturer. There should be a “free from” certification mark that can be obtained and applied to products to show regular testing, auditing and monitoring. This would provide visible assurance that the product has been assessed to the British Retail Consortium 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 labeling of accidental trace allergens (Vital) which provide a standardized allergen risk assessment process for the food industry. The the state of Victoria requires that all cases of anaphylaxis presenting to hospital for treatment be reported to the Department of Health. This ensures that samples are taken immediately to identify the source of the reaction and uncover any potential hazards. The coroner has recommended that foodborne anaphylaxis 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 act now. Food business operators do not need to wait for the coroner’s final report or for the Food Standards Agency to consult on implementation. What’s good for food business customers is good for their business.
As Celia’s younger brother, I miss the feeling that she cares for me. She always had time for me and supported me a lot. She brought her smile everywhere she went and loved helping others. She would find some comfort in knowing that the cause of her death was being used to bring about improvements in the lives of all food allergy sufferers. Allergy sufferers shouldn’t have to gamble with their lives every time they eat out or try a product that claims to be safe.
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