As Pret a Manger is linked to a second allergy death, can it get itself off the hook by blaming a supplier? And what are the wider implications?

Fresh from its mauling at the hands of the coroner investigating the death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, embattled sandwich giant Pret a Manger was this weekend linked to a second alleged allergen death. Celia Marsh, a 42-year-old dental nurse, died in December 2017 after eating a ‘super-veg rainbow flatbread’ vegan sandwich she bought at a Pret store in Bath.

The coroner is yet to rule on her cause of death, or even set a date for an inquest, but Pret has already pointed the finger of blame at CoYo, the supplier of the dairy-free yoghurt in its sandwich.

So what is Pret saying? Pret claims it was “mis-sold” a guaranteed dairy-free yoghurt by CoYo that was later found to contain dairy protein. “This is believed to have resulted in the tragic death of a customer from an allergic reaction in December 2017,” it said in a statement this weekend.

Pret withdrew all affected products as soon as it was made aware of the incident by Bath Council, it says, and subsequent testing by Pret and two local authorities found the CoYo dairy-free yoghurt contained traces of dairy protein.

“Pret informed the FSA, which led to a national product recall from all supermarkets and businesses supplied by CoYo,” it said. “Pret terminated its relationship with CoYo UK and is in the process of taking legal action.”

What was CoYo’s reaction? The Kent-based dairy alternative brand has categorically denied Pret’s “unfounded” claims. It says its “precautionary” recall of dairy-free yoghurts in February 2018 was prompted by its own routine testing, which found a batch of raw material was contaminated with dairy.

However, that raw material wasn’t even supplied to CoYo until January 2018, according to the company’s co-founder Bethany Eaton. She claims Pret is trying to “draw a line” between two separate incidents, “but there isn’t one. The dates don’t add up. The wrap they tested was in February 2018, not in December when this incident happened.”

CoYo also insists Pret has been unable to provide it with batch codes, despite several requests. “We make different batches of CoYo every day that have batch codes, which traces back everything we supply to Pret,” says Eaton. “But at a store level, when we asked them about the batch codes, they couldn’t supply any data.”

Eaton, who established what was originally an Australian brand in the UK in 2012 with her husband Paul, points out the dairy-free yoghurt could have easily become cross-contaminated in Pret’s own kitchens. “Our product is supplied in a 2kg tub to stores. I don’t know what they’re doing once they have it. There are many factors here,” she says. “I can’t believe they’ve thrown us under the bus with no evidence.”

“To throw another business under the bus is a bold strategy”

What are the authorities saying? Not much. The FSA has confirmed that Bath & North East Somerset Council was informed on 19 January 2018 by the coroner of a fatality “with a possible link to allergy” that had occurred in December. The FSA was then notified on 8 February 2018, it said, and it subsequently worked with Bexley, the local authority where CoYo is based, to investigate. “Recommendations were made, appropriate action - including the issue of an allergy alert - was taken by the business and the investigation was closed,” said a spokeswoman.

So can Pret get off the hook by blaming its supplier? Not legally. Under food safety regulations, both the wholesale supplier and the retailer are responsible for ensuring food is safe and accurately described. “This means that all businesses along the food chain have a responsibility to ensure that the food they supply is safe and that any information they provide is accurate,” says an FSA spokeswoman.

Pret might have deflected some of the bad press by pointing the finger at its supplier, but this is a risky strategy before the facts have been established, says David Young, partner and head of food & beverage at Eversheds Sutherland (International) LLP.

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“Legally, the onus is on the retailer to ensure it understands what is going on in its supply chain. If you make such an allegation against your supplier, you should do so behind closed doors unless you are 100% certain of your facts. To do so in public and to throw another business under the bus is a bold and unequivocal strategy,” he says.

“If you are going to point fingers at anybody else, not only should you be 100% certain of your facts, you also need to be ready to explain that there was nothing more you reasonably could have done.”

So what does all this mean for Pret? Regardless of whether the coroner agrees with Pret’s claims or CoYo is ultimately vindicated, this latest incident - coupled with the recent inquest into the death of teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse in July 2016 - have cast some serious questions over Pret’s business model, suggests one senior food industry source.

“This could clearly inflict major damage on both brands, and it’s another example showing that Pret hasn’t got its allergen controls in order,” the source adds. “The little kitchens Pret has on each site is obviously a selling point, but it leaves them open to cross-contamination.

“They are running their units like small, individual sandwich shops, so standards will be variable from shop to shop, and very much dependent on the lowest common denominator. If someone makes an error you are exposed, and I’m not sure that kind of model reflects the technical standards of a £1.4bn business and is viable.”

What lessons can the wider industry learn? Pret might be under scrutiny in the light of these two tragic deaths, but according to our analysis of FSA data, there is a much wider problem with allergen labelling in UK food and drink.

From January to September 2018 there were 70 allergen-related recalls in the UK. That’s the same number as in January to September 2017. “Since we see scarce change in the number of recalls for allergen issues, then clearly more has to be done at source, to avoid creating the risk,” says FSA chair Heather Hancock.

Worryingly, milk was the most featured allergen in recalls for two years running. Serious milk allergies are relatively rare but they can be very dangerous indeed. According to a 2002 study by the British Paediatric Surveillance Unit of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, milk allergies killed more children than peanut allergies from 1990 to 2000.

Teenagers and adults are at risk too. Just last month, an inquest concluded that a 13-year-old schoolboy with a severe dairy allergy died after fellow pupils threw cheese down his t-shirt, while in January 2018 an inquest found an 18-year-old student with a severe dairy allergy died after eating a chicken burger marinated in buttermilk in a restaurant in Manchester.

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If the coroner concludes Celia Marsh did die after suffering an allergic reaction to dairy in the Pret rainbow wrap, it would mean dairy allergies killed at least three people last year.

Products containing undeclared nuts - another fatal allergen - are also making their way on to supermarket shelves. They featured in 13 recalls from January to September 2018, with Sainsbury’s forced to recall in-store bakery all-butter croissants just last month because they contained an almond filling that was not declared on the packaging.

According to the FSA, about 10 people die every year from severe allergic reactions to food and drink. Preventing more deaths will require everyone - including food-to-go outlets, supermarkets, manufacturers and the government - to take this issue more seriously.