A professional dancer from the U.K. with a zest for life has had her dream of pursuing a career in America end in tragedy. All because of a cookie that wasn’t labeled for peanut, to which she was severely allergic.
Órla Baxendale, 25, died of anaphylactic shock because she ate a cookie that turned out to contain peanut, says her attorney. She couldn’t have known, since the allergen was not listed as an ingredient on the package.
Baxendale moved to New York City in 2018 from East Lancashire in England to pursue her performance career. The talented dancer’s reaction death on January 11, 2024 “was 100 percent unquestionably preventable and avoidable,” says attorney Marijo Adimey, who represents the family.
“Preliminary investigation has revealed that Órla’s death occurred due to the gross negligence and reckless conduct of the manufacturer and/or sellers who failed to properly identify the contents of the cookie on the packaging,” Adimey says.
Adimey is a partner with the New York City firm Gair, Gair, Conason, Rubinowitz, Bloom, Hershenhorn, Steigman, and Mackauf. They are representing the family, but a lawsuit has not yet been filed. [Update: see “Family Will Sue” article.]
The FDA and Connecticut-based supermarket Stew Leonard’s recalled the Vanilla Florentine Cookies on January 23. The cookies were made by supplier Cookies United. Also recalled are the Chocolate Florentine Cookies. Two days later, the Stew Leonard’s chain updated the recall – clarifying that the cookies also contained both egg. Neither allergen was shown on package labels.
Complicating the issue of how allergens weren’t labeled and led to tragedy, Cookies United and Stew Leonard’s are each accusing the other of responsibility.
About 500 packages of the cookies, with a sell-by date of January 5, 2024, were sold at the Stew Leonard’s Connecticut locations until December 31, 2023.
Dancer’s Severe Reaction to Cookie
At the time of her death, Baxendale was with the Momix Dance Company, based in Washington, Connecticut. She had just gotten home after rehearsal when she ate the improperly labeled cookie, Adimey told Allergic Living. (The attorney says reports the young woman ate the cookie at a social gathering and had her reaction there are incorrect.)
An EpiPen was used when the dancer began to suffer an anaphylactic reaction. But the attorney’s statement says it was not effective, due to the severity of her allergic reaction.
“This is why it is imperative that the public be able to rely upon the accuracy of all food labeling,” Adimey says. “So that tragic events like these can be avoided.”
According to the lawyer, Baxendale always carried an epinephrine auto-injector and surrounded herself with people who knew how to use one. “Órla was very careful and hyper vigilant about everything she ate.” Adimey adds that she “always thoroughly checked the ingredients on all packaging.”
Dancer’s ‘Boundless Talent’ Hailed
The dance community has been posting tributes to the Baxendale. Órla’s devastated family “wishes to express their gratitude for the outpouring of support and tributes from around the world,” the law firm said.
The young woman with a passion for dance began her New York City dance journey at The Ailey School. In addition, she performed with various dance companies in the New York City area, including Steps on Broadway and Momix.
“We will remember her for her joyful spirit and boundless talent,” the Ailey School posted on Facebook.
The Momix company quoted her obituary on Instagram, “Known for her quirky character and boundless love for those around her, she was a source of joy and inspiration to everyone. Her presence was a constant reminder to live life to its fullest, a lesson she embraced wholeheartedly and urged others to adopt.”
She was passionate about dance in the ballet, contemporary and Irish step disciplines, according to her obituary.
“The memories she bestowed upon us will continue to sparkle with her infectious zest for life and the beautiful art she created,” her obituary reads.
Why Didn’t Cookies List Peanut?
Supplier Cookies United and grocer Stew Leonard’s are blaming each other for labeling that failed to list peanut and egg as allergens.
Stew Leonard’s released a video statement, stating that the supermarket had not been told that the wholesaler changed the ingredients to include peanuts.
“We have very strict food safety practices and one of them is having all proper ingredients listed on our labels. Unfortunately, we are buying these cookies from a company who never told us they changed the ingredients,” said Stew Leonard Jr., president and CEO.
But Cookies United released a statement saying they had sent notice to Stew Leonard’s of an ingredient change to include peanuts in the cookies months ago.
“Stew Leonard’s was notified by Cookies United in July of 2023 that this product now contains peanuts and all products shipped to them have been labeled accordingly. This product is sold under the Stew Leonard’s brand and repackaged at their facilities. The incorrect label was created by, and applied to, their product by Stew Leonard’s,” the statement reads.
That statement is accompanied by images of the labels that Cookies United says it has included on every case of the Vanilla Florentine Cookies since the ingredient change in July 2023. The labels show peanuts in the ingredient list, as well as in a standalone “contains” allergens statement. (The latter also lists wheat, egg, soy and milk.)
Stew Leonard’s has no further comment beyond the video, a spokesperson told Allergic Living.
The family’s attorney is accusing Stew Leonard’s CEO of “engaging in a public relations campaign in which he proclaims his innocence, while blaming the cookie manufacturer and taking absolutely no responsibility whatsoever.”
History of Allergy Labeling Issues
The FDA requires the top 9 allergens to be clearly labeled on packaged foods under the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA). But FDA food recalls due to undeclared allergens continue to be a concern.
Food Safety News reports undeclared allergens as the leading cause of FDA food recalls in a report on 2022 recalls. That year, FDA recalls for allergens accounted for 43.5 percent of all food recalls. But undeclared allergens were the top reason for the previous five years, the report says.
Allergen warnings and ingredient information that are inconsistent often lead to confusion and uncertainty for those navigating food allergies.
For Órla Baxendale, the label error proved fatal. “This failure in proper disclosure has led to this devastating yet preventable outcome,” Adimey said.
Action after Dancer’s Fatal Reaction
In the wake of the young dancer’s fatal reaction, in Connecticut, health authorities are paying attention. The state’s Department of Health Commissioner Manisha Juthani wants to ensure that people with food allergies are protected.
“Correct labeling so that people who have food allergies can appropriately protect themselves is of utmost importance,” Juthani said in a statement. She vows to work with retailers and restaurants in the state to ensure best allergen practices are followed.
Connecticut’s Department of Health and Department of Consumer Protection Food, Standards and Product Safety Division (DCP) are investigating this case. DCP investigators are working “to determine how this error happened and prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in the future,” said DCP Commissioner Bryan T. Cafferelli.
Baxendale’s family is raising awareness about food allergies in their daughter’s memory. They are asking for donations to advocacy groups Allergy UK or Anaphylaxis UK in her memory, according to the Lancashire Telegraph.
“We want to urge everyone to educate yourselves and those around you about anaphylaxis, how to use EpiPens and the early warning signs for severe allergic reactions,” the family told the Telegraph website.