Grocery retailer Stew Leonard's has recalled the cookies, saying they are 'devastated' by the death of Órla Baxendale, whose allergy was too severe for her EpiPen
The family of Órla Baxendale is mourning the death of the 25-year-old dancer, who they say had a severe nut allergy and died of anaphylactic shock on Jan. 11 after eating cookies that did not list peanuts among the ingredients on its label.
Baxendale had moved to New York from East Lancashire, England, to pursue a career in dance, according to a statement issued on behalf of the family by their attorneys, Howard S. Hershenhorn and Marijo C. Adime. Her family is "devastated by this unimaginable loss."
"She was a radiant and brave soul who pursued her dreams relentlessly, leaving an indelible mark on the hearts of those who knew her," they said.
Stew Leonard's — the local grocery retailer who sold the Vanilla Florentine cookies Baxendale consumed while at an event — have since issued a recall of the 500 packs of sweets, in partnership with the Food and Drug Administration. They say the seasonal items were sold at two of their three Connecticut stores, in Danbury and Newington, from Nov. 6 – Dec. 31, 2023. They had a best by date of Jan. 5, 2024.
"Customers with nut allergies should bring back the product to customer service for a full refund," the recall states.
Baxendale's attorney Adime released a second statement saying that the dancer had an EpiPen but her allergy was too severe. “Orla was very careful and hyper-vigilant about everything she ate, and always thoroughly checked the ingredients on all packaging. In addition, she always carried an EpiPen with her and surrounded herself with people who know how to administer one,” the attorney said.
“After she began to have an anaphylactic reaction, an EpiPen was used but due to the severity of her allergy, it was not effective,” he added.
Stew Lleonard's expressed their condolences in a video statement issued by Stew Leonard Jr. "It's a sad day for us. We're just all devastated, very sad," he said. "I have four daughters, one of them is in their 20s. I can imagine how that family feels right now, and we're all just very, very sad about this whole thing."
Leonard Jr. added that the cookies were manufactured by wholesaler Cookies United, out of Islip, New York, and repackaged by Stew Leonard's.
"The supplier changed the recipe and started going from soy nuts to peanuts and our chief safety officer at Stew Leonard's was never notified," Leonard Jr. claimed.
But Cookies United insists otherwise. "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," they alleged in a statement. "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."
"In the 24 hours since Cookies United learned of this tragedy we have 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," noted the release, which also expressed the company's "deepest sympathies" to Baxendale's family.
Reached for comment about Cookies United's claims, a rep for Stew Leonard directed PEOPLE back to Leonard Jr.'s original statement.
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Meanwhile, officials from the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) and the Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH) are now investigating the incident.
"This is a heartbreaking tragedy that should never have happened," said DCP Food Commissioner Bryan Cafferelli. "DCP Food Investigators are working hard with the Department of Public Health, local health departments, officials in New York State and New Jersey, 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. Our condolences go out to the family affected by this incident."
"Correct labeling so that people who have food allergies can appropriately protect themselves is of utmost importance. I am devastated to learn of this incident and will work with partners to ensure that we can protect people with food allergies. I cannot stress enough the importance of food allergy awareness so that an avoidable tragedy like this doesn't happen again," said DPH Commissioner Dr. Manisha Juthani. "We will continue to work with all our partners — including restaurants and retailers — to provide education on the dangers of food allergens so that best practices are being followed for the safety of the residents of Connecticut."
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