The founder of a company that made what was meant to be dairy-free yoghurt used in a Pret a Manger “vegan” wrap has tearfully told an inquest she had no idea a “secret ingredient” contained traces of milk protein.
Bethany Eaton, the managing director of Planet Coconut, said she accepted the bags the ingredient arrived in stipulated that it was manufactured in a factory that also handled milk but believed it would have been made in a separate allergen-free area.
Celia Marsh, 42, a dental nurse and mother-of-five from Melksham, Wiltshire, with a severe allergy to cow’s milk collapsed in a Bath street and died two hours later after eating a “super-veg rainbow flatbread” found to have traces of milk protein.
Eaton told the court that she and her husband Paul, who are both former police officers, 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, and bought the licence to make and supply it 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. “He was very protective of his recipe,” she said.
Planet Coconut began making COYO yoghurt using HG1 manufactured by Tate & Lyle UK’s plant in north Wales and from 2012 supplied customers including Pret, Waitrose and independent health food shops.
Eaton accepted the bags from Tate & Lyle the HG1 came in stated: “Manufactured in a factory that handles milk, eggs, cereals.” But she said: “Henry told me Tate & Lyle were making it in an allergy-free area. I took his word on that and believed it.
“I wouldn’t have dreamed it contained dairy. I didn’t have any worries. I believed there was a separate facility or area or line that was entirely allergen free.”
The Marsh family barrister, Jeremy Hyam KC, asked Eaton why she was not alarmed by the warning on the HG1 bags. She said: “Dairy free is why I got into this. I’m extremely passionate about it. We believed our product did not contain milk.”
Hyam pointed out that by 2017, Planet Coconut was turning over more than £3m a year. Eaton’s voice cracked as she said: “I spent a lot of money buying a licensing agreement for a dairy free yoghurt. I didn’t for one minute think it would contain dairy. I regret buying the licence and trusting the word of someone else.”
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.
Pret said that if it had known the yoghurt contained milk protein it would not have used it in the flatbread.
Guy Meakin, interim MD of Pret, said the company had produced 2.5m items containing the yoghurt with no other incidents. He said the company had made a raft of changes and improvements in areas such as labelling and training.
Attending the inquest on Thursday to support the Marsh family were Tanya and Nadim Ednan-Laperouse, whose 15-year-old daughter, Natasha, died in 2016 after eating a Pret baguette containing sesame seeds. Natasha had a sesame allergy.
The inquest continues.