How did a ‘vegan’ flatbread in Pret a Manger come to contain milk protein?

Celia Marsh, 42, a dental nurse and mother of five from Melksham, Wiltshire, who had a severe allergy to cow’s milk, collapsed and died in December 2017 after eating a Pret a Manger “super-veg rainbow flatbread” found to contain traces of milk protein. We explain how the “vegan” flatbread bought in Bath was “contaminated” with a coconut milk yoghurt developed in Australia and made in England – with a “secret” ingredient manufactured in Wales.

In 2011, former police officers Bethany and Paul Eaton spotted a demand for tasty dairy-free products that were not soya based. They contacted an Australian company called CoYo that produced a dairy-free yoghurt using coconut milk.

CoYo had been founded by Henry Gosling, who was born and raised in Fiji, the grandson of a shipwrecked mariner from England. Gosling grew up among the coconut plantations of Vanua Levu island and in 2009 was living a semi-retired life on the Queensland coast when he had the idea of producing a dairy-free yoghurt using coconut milk. The first batch of CoYo was produced in 2010.

The Eatons set up a company based in Kent called Planet Coconut and bought the licence from Gosling to make and supply his product in the UK under the brand name CoYo.

Bethany Eaton testified at Marsh’s inquest that after they had signed the licence agreement, Gosling told her about “his secret ingredient” – a stabiliser called HG1 designed with the food giant Tate & Lyle’s Australian subsidiary.

Planet Coconut began making its CoYo yoghurt at its dairy-free plant in Kent using HG1 manufactured by Tate & Lyle UK’s factory in Mold, north Wales. It proved very successful and Planet Coconut’s customers included Waitrose, independent health food shops – and Pret a Manger. Planet Coconut said it was obliged to buy the HG1 from CoYo and was given “many assurances” by CoYo that the stabiliser was made in a dairy free production environment.

The HGI arrived at the Planet Coconut plant from Tate & Lyle in bags that stated: “Manufactured in a factory that handles milk, eggs, cereals.” Planet Coconut had documents that flagged the risk. Planet Coconut did not highlight this situation to Pret. 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.

Tate & Lyle in the UK said during the inquest that it was not asked for a dairy free ingredient and so it was manufactured on an ordinary production line, not an allergen-free one.

Pret used the CoYo yoghurt in 2.5m items and said it had assurances that Planet Coconut products were made in an entirely dairy-free site. It says that if it had known the yoghurt contained milk protein, it would not have used it in the flatbread.

During a post-Christmas shopping trip in 2017, Celia Marsh collapsed after eating a flatbread bought from a Pret in Bath.

Maria Voisin, the senior coroner for Avon, ruled that Marsh died due to an anaphylactic reaction caused by eating a wrap contaminated with milk protein, to which she was allergic. She said the contamination arose because HG1 had become cross-contaminated with milk protein during its manufacture.

The Eatons have founded a company called Nush Foods making yoghurts and spreads out of almonds. The CoYo website says: “We’re currently out of stock in the UK. We promise we’ll be back real soon.” Pret no longer makes any free-from claims, including dairy-free, on freshly made products.