A 25-year-old woman died from an allergic reaction after eating a cookie sold by the grocery chain Stew Leonard's that was not properly labeled as containing peanuts, officials and her attorneys said.
Stew Leonard's issued a recall this week for its vanilla Florentine cookies, a seasonal product that was sold at its grocery stores in Danbury and Newington, Connecticut, last year. The company updated its notice on Thursday to recall the vanilla and chocolate Florentine cookies because they contain undeclared peanuts and eggs.
"People with an allergy or severe sensitivity to peanuts or eggs run the risk of serious or life-threatening allergic reaction if they consume these products," the company said in the recall notice.
The cause of the labeling errors remains under investigation. The recall notice also stated, "One death has been reported that may be associated with the mislabeled product."
State officials identified the person who died as a resident of New York in their 20s who reportedly ate the cookies at a social gathering in Connecticut.
The woman has been identified by her legal representatives as Órla Baxendale, a native of East Lancashire, United Kingdom, who moved to New York to pursue a career as a dancer. She died on Jan. 11 from anaphylactic shock "resulting from a severe allergic reaction," according to the law firm, Gair, Gair, Conason, Rubinowitz, Bloom, Hershenhorn, Steigman, and Mackauf.
"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," her attorneys said in a statement on Wednesday. "This failure in proper disclosure has led to this devastating yet preventable outcome."
The cookies were produced by Cookies United, a wholesaler based in Islip, New York, and labeled with the Stew Leonard's brand name, Connecticut officials said.
In a video statement released on Wednesday, Stew Leonard's president and CEO Stew Leonard Jr. said the company is "devastated" by the news of the woman's death after eating the mislabeled cookie.
He said the company's chief safety officer was not notified of a change in the product's recipe.
"We bought it from an outside supplier and unfortunately, the supplier changed the recipe and started going from soy nuts to peanuts and our chief safety officer here at Stew Leonard's was never notified," Leonard said.
"We have a very rigorous process that we use as far as labeling. We take labels very seriously, especially peanuts," he continued.
The company said in its updated statement on Thursday it is working with the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection and the supplier to "determine the cause of the labeling error."
Cookies United said it did notify multiple Stew Leonard's employees via email in July 2023 that the cookies now contain peanuts.
"This is a tragedy that should have never happened and our sympathy is with the family of this Stew Leonard's customer," the company said in a statement.
Walker Flanary, general counsel for Cookies United, said in a statement the company has been cooperating with the New York State Department of Agriculture and "have been informed we are in compliance with all applicable rules and regulations relating to this product."
Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection Commissioner Bryan Cafferelli said the department's investigators are working with local health and state officials, the Food and Drug Administration and Stew Leonard's "to determine how this error happened and prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in the future."
"This is a heartbreaking tragedy that should never have happened," Cafferelli said in a statement.
Investigators are also working to determine if any other products were affected and sold to other stores, the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection Commissioner said.
About 500 packages of the recalled cookies were sold over the holiday, according to Leonard. The impacted cookies were sold in Danbury and Newington from Nov. 6 to Dec. 31, 2023. Consumers with a nut allergy are advised to immediately dispose of the cookies or return them for a full refund.
Baxendale's death is the only one that may have been associated with the mislabeled products, according to Connecticut officials.
Baxendale's death "is not only a personal tragedy for her family and friends but also a significant loss to the artistic community," her attorneys said.
The U.K. native moved to New York in 2018 to attend the Ailey School and had become an "integral part of the New York dance world, pursuing her passion, shining her bright light, and doing what she loved most," the Ailey School said in a statement on social media.
Baxendale was most recently a member of the company MOMIX, who described her as "an embodiment of enthusiasm, strength, and beauty" and an "exquisite ballet, contemporary, and Irish step dancer."
"Known for her quirky character and boundless love for those around her, she was a source of joy and inspiration to everyone," MOMIX said in a statement on social media. "Her presence was a constant reminder to live life to its fullest, a lesson she embraced wholeheartedly and urged others to adopt."