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Killed by a Bite of Dairy

Oct. 5, 2022
A man recalls his sister’s tragic death from food allergy and calls for better anti-allergen measures.

A tragedy in the United Kingdom in 2017, movingly recalled by the victim’s brother in a recent article in the Guardian, should serve as a reminder of what is at stake in handling allergens.

In the Guardian piece, Gareth Gower recounts how his sister Celia Marsh died at age 41 after consuming a “vegan rainbow vegetable wrap” from Pret a Manger. The wrap was labeled “dairy free,” and Celia would never have eaten it otherwise; she had known for years that she was severely allergic to dairy and scrupulously avoided it.

The problem was that the wrap included “dairy-free” yogurt that really wasn’t. The coconut-based yogurt alternative, which was supplied to Pret a Manger by Planet Coconut, was found to have traces of milk protein. As a subsequent coroner’s investigation revealed, the problem was with a stabilizer trade-named HG1, made at a Tate & Lyle plant in Wales, that apparently suffered cross-contamination with dairy products during processing.

As invariably happens in these cases, there is finger-pointing up and down the supply chain. Planet Coconut believed the assurances that the HG1 was dairy-free, just as Pret believed Planet Coconut’s assurances. According to Gareth Gower’s article, “Planet Coconut had in their possession documents that flagged the risk of cross contamination, but...this risk was not passed up the supply chain to Pret.”

Gower doesn’t allude to what, if any, legal action his family is taking, but he’s very clear as to what he thinks governments should do. He calls for obligatory testing with rigidly maintained standards: “‘Free from’ should mean a guaranteed absence of the allergen from the food and not open to interpretation by the manufacturer.”

Please, read the whole thing. It’s a chilling, sobering reminder why cross-contamination is not some abstract concern.

About the Author

Pan Demetrakakes | Senior Editor

Pan has written about the food and beverage industry for more than 25 years. His areas of coverage have included formulations, processing, packaging, marketing and retailing. Pan worked for Food Processing Magazine for six years in the 1990s, where he was operations editor (his current role), touring dozens of food plants of every description. He has also worked for Packaging and Food & Beverage Packaging magazines, the latter as chief editor, during which he won three ASBPE awards. He is a graduate of Stanford University with a BA in communications.

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