By Allergen Bureau

‘Secret Ingredient’ in Vegan Yoghurt Caused Milk Allergy Death

A coconut-based yoghurt product used by UK sandwich shop Pret a Manger to make a vegan wrap is the centre of attention in the inquest into the 2017 anaphylaxis death of 42-year-old mother of five, Celia Marsh.

The inquest has heard that the founder and Managing Director of Planet Coconut, the company supplying the yoghurt to Pret, had no idea a “secret ingredient” contained traces of milk protein. Yet testing showed the yoghurt contained between 3.1 and 3.4mg/kg of milk protein.

Bethany Eaton told the court that she and her husband Paul set up Planet Coconut in 2011 after spotting a gap in the market for dairy-free products that were not soya based. They contacted an Australian company called CoYo, founded by Henry Gosling, which makes a coconut milk yoghurt. They bought the licence to make and supply the product in the UK under the brand name “COYO”.

Eaton said when they had signed the licence agreement, Gosling told Planet Coconut about his “secret ingredient” – a stabiliser called HG1 designed with the food giant Tate & Lyle’s Australian subsidiary.

Planet Coconut began making COYO yoghurt using HG1 manufactured by Tate & Lyle UK’s plant and from 2012 supplied customers including Pret, Waitrose and independent health food shops.

The labelling on the bags of HG1 from Tate & Lyle stated: “Manufactured in a factory that handles milk, eggs, cereals.” However, Eaton maintains she was told by Gosling that the ingredients were manufactured in a separate, allergy-free area of the factory.

In a statement read out at the inquest, Gosling said that under the licensing agreement, Planet Coconut was obliged to ensure the HG1 it used was dairy free.

Inquests do not apportion blame but seek to determine the facts, from which the coroner can make recommendations for the prevention of future deaths based on their findings.

Following Celia Marsh’s death, proceedings were brought by Bath and North East Somerset Council against Pret a Manger as well as Planet Coconut. However, the prosecution concluded with the council’s decision not to continue, given the absence of evidence. As a result, Pret was found not guilty. In February 2018, Planet Coconut carried out a nationwide recall of dairy-free products.

Celia’s husband Andy Marsh has since launched a personal injury lawsuit at London’s High Court.

The inquest is expected to take up to three weeks. Extensive reporting on the hearings can be found in UK media outlets the BBC, The Guardian and The Sun.