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A former Pret a Manger supplier has told an inquest it relied on verbal assurances that one of its ingredients was dairy-free prior to the death of a woman in 2017.

The inquest is investigating the death of Celia Marsh who suffered a fatal allergic reaction in December 2017 after eating a supposedly dairy-free flatbread from Pret a Manger in Bath.

The flatbread contained yoghurt produced by Planet Coconut, the UK manufacturer and distributor of CoYo dairy-free yoghurt, a company based in Australia.

An earlier investigation by local authorities revealed the yoghurt contained ‘HG1’ tapioca starch supplied by Tate & Lyle, which was identified as the potential source of the contamination.

On Thursday, Bethany Eaton, MD and co-founder of Planet Coconut, told the inquest that Planet Coconut relied on verbal assurances that HG1 was dairy-free after CoYo founder Henry Gosling refused to provide detailed allergen information.

“When I asked Henry for all documentation around HG1 he sent a [product] specification and said that was all he had at that time. It contained no allergen information.”

“[HG1] was his secret ingredient. His IP,” Eaton added, telling the court that Gosling assured her Tate & Lyle made HG1 in an allergen-free area and protections were in place. “He was very protective over it and said he’d audited all his suppliers.”

As well as Gosling’s verbal assurances, Eaton said she was reassured “by the fact I bought a licence for a dairy-free coconut yoghurt. The fact HG1 was specifically designed for CoYo coconut yoghurt, which is a dairy free yoghurt. That’s what I relied upon.”

Pret was therefore never told of potential allergen contamination during the production “because we believed that was the case,” she said.

While Planet Coconut never tested its ingredients for allergens prior to Marsh’s death, its final product was tested for dairy on an annual basis. However, Eaton said no results for this testing could be found before 2017.

Last week, Kirsty Langford, a trading standards officer for Bath & North East Somerset Council, told the inquest that how often a product should be tested was not enshrined in law. “With a small supplier like Planet Coconut it would be less often than a bigger company.”

She suggested Pret a Manger had not 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.”

At the time of Marsh’s death, Planet Coconut also supplied retailers including Tesco, Waitrose and Selfridges.

Tate & Lyle

The HG1 stabiliser is a product designed specifically for use in CoYo’s dairy-free coconut products by Gosling and Tate & Lyle Australia.

While it was developed in Australia, the HG1 supplied to Planet Coconut was made at Tate & Lyle’s Mold factory in North Wales.

Last week, the inquest heard that Tate & Lyle never claimed its HG1 starch was suitable for a dairy-free claim and documentation was passed to Planet Coconut that raised the risk of contamination at its Mold site.

In addition to the documentation, Tate & Lyle placed warning labels on the HG1 bags supplied to Planet Coconut that highlighted the risk of allergen cross-contamination at the factory. Eaton said she’d noticed the label, but was assured by CoYo “it was being made in an area that was allergen-free”.

Eaton said Planet Coconut did not request any allergen information directly from Tate & Lyle as she did not consider it a supplier. Until late 2017, Planet Coconut placed all orders for HG1 through Henry Gosling, she told the court.

Asked whether she regretted not making an inquiry to the Tate & Lyle about the potential contamination, Eaton replied: “I regret buying the licence and taking the word of someone else. That’s what I regret.”