In the past few weeks, an inquest in Bristol has sought to determine the circumstances surrounding the death in 2017 of Celia Marsh, after eating a ‘dairy-free’ Pret a Manger flatbread. This week, the coroner ruled Planet Coconut, supplier of the ‘dairy-free’ Coyo yoghurt used in the Pret flatbread as a dressing, had failed to pass on documents in its possession flagging the risk of dairy contamination. In fact the label on every bag of HG1, the contaminated ingredient, stated it was ‘manufactured in a factory handling milk’.

It’s damning evidence. And it would be easy to point the finger at Planet Coconut and its founder, Bethany Eaton, and conclude: case closed. Eaton was by her own admission inexperienced in food safety matters, and the line of questioning from Pret and the Marsh family’s lawyers during her five hours on the stand last week certainly sought to lay the blame firmly at her door.

The reality, though, is that this could happen again. For while Natasha’s Law, enacted in 2021 as a result of another tragic allergy-related death at a Pret a Manger, has led to an overhaul of the allergen labelling system, systemic, legal and regulatory issues still need to be tackled to stop future deaths.

There is still no recognised legal threshold of allergens in food, for example. There are no laws specifying how often a product should be tested for potential contamination. And as the coroner highlighted this week, anaphylaxis is still not a recognised disease meaning doctors are under no obligation (unlike with food poisoning) to raise the alarm when a patient suffers a reaction. As a result, there are still no reliable figures for how many people die each year from allergic reactions in the UK.


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These issues are only heightened by the fact the vast majority of suppliers in the food sector are small enterprises, with limited budgets and limited expertise. In the case of Planet Coconut, Eaton gave up a career in the police force to launch a plant-based yoghurt via a licensing deal with an Australian yoghurt brand that specified the processes, ingredients and even suppliers to be used.

Eaton took it as read that the vegan HG1 ingredient would be ‘dairy-free’ as it was produced by the same manufacturer (Tate & Lyle) though not from the same factory. What she hadn’t paid enough attention to was the possibility of contamination. But it’s only recently that Mars pulled out of the vegan chocolate market – due to liability concerns over its supply chain. So it could happen to anyone. The chances are very limited but still the number of fatalities from dairy allergies is higher than from more widely publicised nut allergies.

The ‘free-from’ market has gone from niche to mainstream by targeting the burgeoning vegan and plant-based lifestyle – rather than meeting the needs of a tiny minority with severe allergies. But as the case of Planet Coconut has shown, the consequences of such an oversight can be dire.

Nor can Pret a Manger be entirely comfortable with the outcome of this case. Sure, it’s been absolved by the coroner’s inquest. But it no longer sells any freshly prepared ‘free-from’ products. Such caution is understandable. But it just goes to show there’s no faith in the system.