Hamilton needs food allergy education

By Kaitlin McCabe '16

While most Hamilton students were returning to campus for the spring semester, I was speeding down the Hill via an ambulance after experiencing an allergic reaction to shellfish as a result of cross contamination in Commons.

Prior to this frightening incident, I had no serious difficulties navigating the dining halls safety—with an allergy to shellfish, it has been quite simple: just don’t eat it.  Yet, this unexpected accident was a disturbing eye-opener. Although I make responsible decisions about what I eat, I am not fully in control when cross contamination and mislabeling occur in the dining halls.

After sharing my own experience and concerns about food allergens in the dining halls, several Hamilton students with myriad allergies or special diets discussed with me their own opinions and apprehensions.  Gluten-intolerant Jess Sofen ’16, who frequently suffered from stomach sickness last year due to cross contamination, considers the misuse of gluten-free appliances, such as the panini press in Commons, to be a significant problem. She said, “Some days the ‘Used for Made Without Gluten Bread Only’ disappears...I was told by a Commons staff member that the grill is cleaned every day, but I know for a fact that is not true because I will use the grill in the morning, and it will still have the burnt on leftover bread from the night before.”

In addition to cross contamination, mislabeling has caused  frustration and anxiety for several students. Sofen said, “Some days [the oatmeal is] marked gluten-free, sometimes it’s not. As far as I know, they don’t change the brand day-to-day, so I just stay away.”  Vegan Risa Nagel ’16 added, “I am always confused by the vegan labeling…Rice is always labeled gluten-free, but never vegan, even though I am sure it contains no animal products. The labels are superficial in purpose rather than informative.”

I personally was horrified when I witnessed a student in Commons sample an ambiguous, unlabeled ice cream flavor.  He assumed it was caramel only to discover that it was, in fact, peanut butter.  I could not understand how a product containing such a common and dangerous allergen was so heedlessly placed for students to unknowingly consume or expose to the other ice cream flavors.  Though I immediately reported this issue, I was disappointed to discover that the unlabeled ice cream appeared in the freezer the following day.

By no means are these students or I suggesting that the Bon Appétit Management Company is negligent.  I fully understand that it follows a policy based on recommendations from the Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) for colleges and universities and that dining hall attendees can read  “descriptive menu nomenclature” to determine major allergens present in the ingredients.  However, the open kitchens and self-serve areas in each dining hall increase the possibility for cross contact with major allergens.  Another potential risk is that allergens can slip into a dish unintentionally, a mishap that caused my own trip to the emergency room earlier this semester.

Ultimately, it is clear that their needs to be better education about food allergens and how to handle them on the Hill.

When I addressed these particular concerns to Bon Appétit General Manager Patrick Raynard, he did acknowledge that “accidental exposures do happen, and it’s clear from the students who have chosen to share their experiences that there is always room for us to improve.” He said assuredly that Bon Appétit will focus more attentively on the treatment of food allergens: “We will step up our training and spend extra effort on checking our labels…I hope that anyone who ever notices a glitch in our system will communicate it to me or another manager, and anyone who suspects they have become ill will contact us immediately.”

Already, in this past week, the Food Committee met to discuss labeling options more clearly in the dining halls to allow more students to eat safely and without worry.

While Bon Appétit can take, and is taking, preventative measures to ensure student safety, all responsibility cannot be placed on the employees alone.  Hamilton students must also be aware that the food they consume within dining halls is potentially dangerous for others, and their own thoughtless actions—whether they’re smothering the jelly scoopers with peanut butter or using the gluten-free panini press for products containing gluten—risk other student’s safety.

It is true that only a minority of Hamilton students need to carry an Epipen or other medications with them at all times.  However, that does not mean that the lucky majority without food allergies can continue to disregard the health of their peers. So, if the panini press is being used, please wait in line patiently for your turn rather than taking advantage of the gluten-free appliance and wash your peanut butter or seafood-covered hands before reaching for some other food.

This consideration for your fellow students is worth the extra time and effort. For in the case of food allergies, just one tiny gesture can save someone’s life.


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