The family of a mother-of-five from Wiltshire who died from a severe allergic reaction after eating a wrap from Pret a Manger which was 'contaminated with milk' are demanding stricter food testing and labelling.
Celia Marsh, 42, a dental nurse from Melksham, died on 27 December 2017 after eating a super-veg rainbow flatbread from the sandwich chain’s store in Bath, Somerset.
She had been on a post-Christmas shopping trip with her husband and three of her daughters at the time.
An inquest into her death has now ended at Avon Coroner's Court, with the coroner concluding that Celia died after eating the vegan wrap which was contaminated with traces of milk.
The coconut yoghurt used as dressing from the Australian brand CoYo, which was licensed for manufacture in the UK to British firm Planet Coconut, had traces of milk protein in it, senior coroner Maria Voisin concluded.
Ms Voisin told the hearing: “Celia Marsh was allergic to milk. She died when she suffered anaphylaxis caused by consumption of a wrap contaminated with milk protein.
“She was not aware that the wrap contained milk protein. The wrap contained a product with was labelled as dairy-free yoghurt alternative but, despite this, contained milk protein which was the cause of Celia’s anaphylaxis.
“The contamination arose because an ingredient in the yoghurt called HG1 (a starch) had been cross-contaminated with milk protein during its manufacture.
“The manufacturer of the dairy-free yoghurt had in its possession documentation that flagged this risk but this risk was not passed on to its customers.”
Her husband, daughters and mother have paid tribute to Celia and have called for stricter rules surrounding food labelling and testing to prevent other families from going through a similar ordeal.
Andy Marsh, 51, married Celia in 2007 and described his wife as his “best friend”.
He said: “Celia meant the world to us all. She could brighten up your worst days with just one smile. She would look at you with her blue eyes and you just felt better. She was a great mum.
“We were best friends. People could tell we were in love by just sitting in the same room as us and us not saying a word to each other.
“Any manufacturer who makes something that is then labelled ‘free from’ has to take the responsibility for the testing to make sure it is exactly that.
"I want to see testing at every stage of the process to make sure nothing gets through the cracks and to provide a safety net.
"People with allergies are currently relying solely on the fact that the packaging says it is ‘free from’. Surely more testing along the way – even if it is more time-consuming – would be better going forward.”
The inquest heard the wrap Celia ate in Bath had contained yogurt which was supposed to be vegan but was later found to have traces of dairy protein in it.
Avon Coroner’s Court has heard the yoghurt was produced by Planet Coconut, which is the UK manufacturer and distributor of products developed by Australia-based yoghurt company CoYo.
Celia’s daughter Brenna Grice, 22, had gone to get lunch when she returned to find that her mum had collapsed from an anaphylactic reaction.
Brenna said: “I remember I tried to ring her and Andy. There was no answer from mum. We eventually walked down this street and saw a massive crowd – it was a very distressing scene.
"Someone we knew came up to us and told us it was our mum on the floor. It was not nice to be told that was my mum.
“We could not believe that it was our mum. Even though she had allergies, I neverbelieved this would happen to her.
“I would not wish what had happened to us on any other family. After the death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse you would think lessons would have been learned, and it would not happen again – but it has.”
Celia’s eldest daughter Ashleigh Grice, 27, said: “In December 2017, mum and us girls all had Christmas Day together. We were so close.
"When I left, mum told me she loved me. I told her ‘I love you too’. They were the last words we said to each other.
"Even though mum had experienced a serious anaphylactic reaction earlier that year when she nearly died, we weren’t worried until we got to the hospital.
“When we got there, we were taken into a room where we were told mum had died. It didn’t feel real. I just couldn’t believe what the doctors were telling me. I felt like I was watching myself in a movie.
“Mum was the whole soul of our family. I work as a dental nurse, which is what mum did. I feel very privileged that I do the same job. She is my hero, my inspiration.”
Celia’s daughter Kayleigh Grice, 20, said: “The day that everything happened, we split to go for separate lunches. I do often think that if we had maybe gone with her, then maybe she wouldn’t have eaten the sandwich and she would still be here now.
“But obviously Andy was with her, looking after her and checking on her anyway soyou just can’t think like that.
“Labelling has to be better for people with allergies. There has to be clearer messages. Mum was so on it with labelling, she would triple-check everything.
"If there was any hint that something may contain something she was allergic to, she wouldn’t touch it or even go anywhere near it.
“Change has to come to make sure no other family goes through what we went through.
"This should not happen ever again. We miss her smile, and her laugh. We are having to learn to live with it – not seeing her every day.
"One of the saddest things is we never got a chance to say goodbye. I would love to have one more hug or one more conversation.
Celia’s daughter Shanaye Grice, 23, described her mum as “the heartbeat ofour family”.
She said: “Mum was the most caring mum who would not let us go without. She always made us feel loved and was the heartbeat of our family.
“I miss her personality and her attitude to life. She always saw the positives instuff, she always tried to make things better for all of us.
"I’m so glad that all of us girls were with mum on that last Christmas. Looking back, it was special. We were sitting down at the table and making jokes. It was just a nice family day.
“We have to do something about 'free from' labelling in this country. It has tomean just that. We cannot let this happen again to another family.”
Avon Coroner’s Court was told she “religiously avoided” all dairy products following a near-fatal allergic reaction months earlier.
Jennifer Gower, 72, who is Celia's mother says her daughter had been an allergy sufferer since she was a child and was always vigilant about what she ate.
She said: “Shortly before she died, I remember saying ‘just to be safe, don’t buy sandwiches from small stores or corner shops, go to a more reputable high street chain asthere will be less chance of cross contamination'."
"She said 'Ok Mum'. She followed my advice when she bought that flatbread from Pret a Manger. Even though, she did everything she could, Celia lost her life.
“The biggest message I want to come out of this is that every life matters. Better education about allergies and better support for allergy sufferers is needed so no one goes through what Celia did.”
Celia’s brother Gareth Gower is also calling for more stringent labelling laws around anything that claims to be “free from”.
He said: “’Free From’ should mean a guaranteed total absence of that allergen from the food and not an interpretation by the manufacturer, with no requirement to test the product to ensure it has not been contaminated.
“Celia's death could have been avoided had a regulated requirement of testing and a mandated safety standard been implemented to verify the “free from” claim.
“We strongly believe “free from” claims on products must be regulated andcertified to prevent future tragedy.
“We would like to see the introduction of a “free from” certification mark that can be earned and applied to products to demonstrate conformity to regular testing, auditing and controls and validate the conformity to a “free from” claim.
“Allergy sufferers should not have to gamble with their lives every time they eat outside of the house or try a product that claims to be safe and free from allergies.
"Celia will be greatly missed by her family and friends; she loved to help others and would take some comfort in the cause of her death being used for the improvement of the lives of all food allergy sufferers and national allergy awareness.”
Pano Christou, CEO, Pret A Manger said: “As a father and husband, I can only imagine how distressing this has been for Celia’s children and family. Our deepest sympathies remain with everyone who knew and loved Celia.
“We fully support the Coroner’s findings. As the Coroner made clear, Planet Coconut had information which should have alerted them that their CoYo yoghurt may have contained milk and this information was not passed on to Pret.
"It goes without saying that if Pret had ever known that the CoYo yoghurt may have contained milk, we would have never used the ingredient.
“On Pret’s part, we have taken significant steps forward with our suppliers and labelling policies since 2017.
"Through the Pret Allergy Plan, we made a clear commitment to lead the industry in developing new policies for people with food allergies.
"We will continue to do everything we can to help every customer get the information they need to make the right choice for them.”