Chemist believes deadly Pret a Manger sandwich contained milk

Chemist who tested Pret a Manger sandwich which ‘triggered dairy allergy’ in mother-of-five who died two hours later says he believes the product contained milk

  • Sandwich that triggered a fatal dairy allergy contained milk, chemist believes
  • But the quantity was below the level at which it can be reliably measured 
  • Mother-of-five Celia Marsh, 42, died after eating Pret a Manger veg sandwich
  • Sandwich in question could not be tested as Ms Marsh ate the whole thing 

A Pret a Manger vegan sandwich that triggered a fatal dairy allergy is believed to have contained milk, despite the level being too low to measure with any degree of accuracy, a chemist told an inquiry.

The evidence comes after the death of Celia Marsh, 42, who went into anaphylactic shock and died shortly after eating a super-veg rainbow flatbread on the afternoon of December 27, 2017. 

The mother-of-five, from Melksham, Wiltshire, had been on a post-Christmas shopping trip in Bath with her husband and three of her daughters at the time.

The sandwich was labelled as vegan but the coconut yoghurt used in its production was later found to contain traces of milk protein.

The CoYo branded yoghurt was manufactured and distributed in the UK by a company called Planet Coconut.

On Thursday, analytical chemist Paul Hancock, working for Bath and North East Somerset Council, gave evidence to an inquest at Avon Coroner’s Court in Bristol on his testing of the wrap and the ingredients within it.

Celia Marsh, 42, suffered a fatal anaphylactic reaction after eating a ‘super-veg rainbow flatbread’ at a Pret store

The dental nurse, from Melksham, Wiltshire, suffered from a severe dairy allergy and later died in hospital from the reaction

Mrs Marsh’s family, including husband Andy, pictured arriving for her inquest yesterday. They listened as analytical chemist Paul Hancock say ‘I think it would be reasonable to deduce there was milk in the super veg rainbow wrap’

The court heard Mrs Marsh had consumed the wrap in its entirety and it could not be tested, and the original pot of yoghurt used to make it was thrown away before the council began its investigation.

But testing by Mr Hancock conducted at Worcester Scientific Services’ laboratory on two other pots of yoghurt found 3.1mg/kg of milk protein in one, and 3.4mg/kg in another.

Testing of a rainbow veg wrap found 0.55mg/kg of milk protein – below the level at which it can be reliably measured by accepted testing procedures, known as the limit of detection.

Mr Hancock wrote Food Standards Authority certificates for the two and also for the wrap stating they contained milk.

He explained: ‘In the absence of challenge, the document should be accepted in a court of law.’

Under cross-examination by Jonathan Laidlaw QC, for Pret, he acknowledged he should not have written such a certificate for the wrap, given that the test results fell outside the level of certainty.

‘It was produced purely as supporting evidence and I think my comments at the start of the certificate say they result is tentative and can’t be relied upon,’ Mr Hancock said.

‘Using the supporting evidence of other analysis, looking at the whole product, the fact CoYo yoghurt had milk in it, looking at the whole picture with the other ingredients, I think it would be reasonable to deduce there was milk in the super veg rainbow wrap.

Mrs Marsh died after eating a ‘super-veg rainbow flatbread’ (pictured) which had been contaminated with milk protein

She had been enjoying a family meal at the Pret A Manger store (pictured) in Bath, Somerset, in December 2017 (Stock image)

‘It will be for the court to decide if the milk protein present was sufficient to cause a reaction in Mrs Marsh.’

The court heard the 0.55mg/kg was an average of two tests conducted on the wrap – one which yielded a result of 0.196mg/kg, and a second of 0.907mg/kg – a difference of 450%.

Mr Hancock also acknowledged he had been unable to conduct testing to rule out a false positive sometimes triggered by coconut milk.

Asked by coroner Maria Voisin if he stood by his conclusion that the wrap contained milk protein, Mr Hancock said: ‘I stand by that, I believe there was milk protein in that sample.

‘As to exactly how much, I believe further work would have needed to have been done to give a more precise figure and whether that amount was sufficient to cause a reaction, we can’t know.’

The mother-of-five, pictured here with her husband Andy Marsh, was rushed to hospital after the incident in December 2017 but she sadly later died

Mrs Marsh’s husband Andy Marsh (back, centre) and her family outside the inquest at Avon and Somerset Coroner’s Court in Bristol yesterday

Asked by the coroner if he believed the term ‘dairy free’ had been appropriately applied, Mr Hancock said: ‘I would expect there to be an absence of milk or milk products in something described as dairy free.’

Mr Hancock said he had looked up the definition of vegan – someone who never eats meat or animal products such as dairy – in the Collins English Dictionary.

‘I would expect an average member of the public to understand vegan as that definition – milk protein is an animal product,’ he said.

‘Similarly I would expect that a product described as vegan to be free from milk products.

‘I think there’s a consumer expectation when they see such a description applied to food, and I think that consumer expectation aligns with the dictionary definition.’

Pret was charged with food safety failures in the wake of Mrs Marsh’s death, but the prosecution was later dropped due to lack of evidence.

The inquest heard previously that Pret displayed a warning in its outlets stating its food was prepared on-site in a busy kitchen, and it could not guarantee it was safe for people with allergies.

The inquest is expected to last between two and three weeks, and among the interested parties are Mrs Marsh’s family, Pret and Planet Coconut.

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