Dee Henderson, 43, Fremantle, WA
Browsing the supermarket with my husband, Alem, 37, a new drink caught his eye. We were stocking up on school holiday snacks for our son Aiden, nine, who is allergic to nuts and dairy. He's had several terrifying close calls in his short life. The first was when he was seven months old. We'd given him a cheese stick to nibble on and moments later, he turned bright red and started to vomit. Rushing him to the doctor, tests revealed he was allergic to dairy, nuts and eggs.
After that, we learnt how to adapt our diet to keep him safe. Although he's since built up a tolerance to eggs - nuts and dairy could still be lethal. When he was four, Aiden nearly died after eating a cheese cracker. Another time, he went into anaphylactic shock when he ate a sausage containing milk powder. Each time we were terrified we'd lose him.
To avoid further incidents, Alem and I are extremely cautious but we also keep an eye out for new products Aiden actually can have. That's when Alem spotted Coco Joy on the shelf. The drink came in chocolate, banana and coffee flavours. Picking up a bottle, he carefully scrutinised the ingredients. 'No dairy!' I said to Alem excitedly. 'Shall we give it a go?' Being extra cautious, I double-checked the label. Pure coconut milk, it read, so we popped some in our trolley.
Aiden nearly died after eating a cheese cracker.
A few days later I gave Aiden the banana-flavoured drink while he was watching TV. 'See if you like this,' I said, handing him the bottle. Never having the flavoured milk his mates drink, he was stoked at this alternative. 'Thanks Mum,' he grinned. I watched as he took a sip and licked his lips. 'Yum,' he smiled, then took another. Seconds later he turned to me with terror in his eyes. 'Oh no!' he cried. 'My mouth and tongue feel all funny.' Aiden is well aware of the signs of anaphylaxis. His bottom lip started swelling and his throat began to close in.
Frantically I called to Alem. 'He just had three sips of that coconut drink,' I told him, panicked. Aiden's face was turning red with hives and they were spreading down to his chest. Bolting to the kitchen, I grabbed the EpiPen we keep on hand for emergencies. Tossing it to Alem to administer, I grabbed the phone and called Triple-0. By then, Aiden was struggling to breathe. 'Come quickly,' I told the operator, watching my husband inject the EpiPen into our boy's thigh.
Although the adrenaline shot would help, Aiden was still in serious danger. Thankfully an ambulance arrived six minutes later. My boy was given oxygen and loaded onto a stretcher. At hospital, he was attached to a cannula with steroids. I was so relieved he'd made it. If we hadn't been so prepared, the situation could have been much worse.
'Do you know what triggered his reaction?' a doctor asked. I explained he'd had three sips of a new coconut drink he'd never tried before. 'Alem and I read the label and it didn't say it contained any dairy or nuts,' I replied. I felt awful.
Although the adrenaline shot would help, Aiden was still in serious danger.
The doctor advised me to keep the Coco Joy products in the fridge and take them to an immunologist for testing. Five weeks later, we had an appointment. The immunologist took a tiny droplet of the coconut milk, placed it on Aiden's skin and then pricked it. The area immediately turned red and swelled. Could the 'pure coconut' drink actually contain dairy? The fact that it wasn't mentioned anywhere on the label was horrifying!
That day I reported the incident to Allergy and Anaphylaxis Australia. They notified the NSW Health Department and three days later, a health official collected the drink for testing. That afternoon I got a call confirming it did contain dairy. 'We're testing all coconut products on the market,' the representative from NSW Health told me. I couldn't believe it. That drink could've killed my son!
Allergy and Anaphylaxis Australia put a warning about the product on their website and it was recalled by the distributor, FAL Healthy Beverages Pty Ltd. A month later, it was revealed a 10-year-old Victorian boy with dairy allergies died after consuming Greentime Natural Coconut Drink, which contained undeclared cow's milk. Alem and I were devastated by the news. It reminded us just how close we'd come to losing our son.
That drink could've killed my son!
Narkena Pty Ltd, which imported the drink from Taiwan, pleaded guilty to three charges relating to the packing and labelling and last month was fined $18,000. It breaks my heart that an incorrect label could take a life.
Following these incidents, efforts to test coconut drinks on the market were stepped up. As of November 18, 27 coconut-related products were found to have undeclared dairy and were recalled. It's frightening to think how many lives were put in danger. Australian food labelling laws don't require ingredients to be declared if they make up less than five per cent of a product, so I'm advocating for these laws to be updated. I'm thankful our boy is okay. His close call has helped make things safer for others.
A Coco Joy spokesman said
We immediately and voluntarily recalled all products and have implemented stringent measures to ensure all Coco Joy products are tested thoroughly. Extensive allergen testing is performed on every batch. Coco Joy milk has now been reformulated with all allergen test results available to our consumers by contacting our Quality Control department. We sincerely regret this situation but feel confident that it will never be repeated.
Originally published in that's life! Issue 49, 2015, cover date 3 December 2015.
- Food Standards Australia requires labels to list ingredients in descending order by ingoing weight.
- There is no requirement to list ingredients that make up less than five per cent of the product, is part of a broth, brine or syrup in the list, or is used to reconstitute dehydrated ingredients.