Students with allergies encounter dangers across 5C dining halls

Beef sauerbraten-German pot roast was mislabeled as “vegetarian” at Collins Dining Hall Sept. 10. (Samuel Breslow • The Student Life)

Food mislabeling and cross contamination at dining halls across the 5Cs make it more difficult for students with allergies and dietary restrictions to eat safely.

While food labels at 5C dining halls only indicate the presence of the top eight allergens — milk, eggs, fish, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, wheat, and soybeans — many students have allergies outside these top eight, rendering a great deal of “allergen free” foods potentially dangerous.

Even when students eat completely benign foods, such as white rice or grilled chicken, they still run the risk of accidentally consuming allergens.

There have been cases of cross contamination at Malott Dining Hall’s “Simple Servings” stations, dishes switched without corresponding label changes, and conversations with Dining hall cooks during which they were misinformed regarding ingredients in dishes.

While these experiences would prompt students to begin cooking for themselves, dorm kitchens are not always stocked with communal cooking supplies.

“This is a life or death situation for some people.”

Molly Yeselson

Molly Yeselson, who is currently on an extended leave of absence from Scripps College, has experience with errors in 5C food labeling. Yeselson had an allergic reaction at Malott in fall 2017 after eating a cookie with a corresponding label that did not include nuts as an ingredient.

After finding Student Health Services closed during lunchtime, Yeselson was driven to urgent care, where they were administered an Epipen because they were having trouble breathing.

“They just neglected to label the cookie without thinking of the potential consequences,” Yeselson said. “It would be really helpful if people on campus were aware that this is a life or death situation for some people.”

A photo from Oct. 2, 2015 of cheese pizza mislabeled as “vegan” at Frary Dining Hall. (Samuel Breslow • The Student Life)

Responding to persistent allergy issues and student complaints, dining halls across the 5Cs have taken steps over the past academic year to minimize allergen and cross-contamination related incidents.

“All food labeling is really a best faith effort,” said Liz Ryan, Pomona College’s nutritionist.

In July, Pomona Dining services mandated that all line cooks and dining hall managers receive AllerTrain cross contamination training.

“For a lot of staff, [the training] was a wake up call because they didn’t realize that just one allergen particle can get students very sick or cause allergic reactions,” said Jose Martinez, Pomona Dining Services General Manager.

In the last year, Hoch-Shanahan Dining Hall updated its “Simple Servings” lines, enlisting dining staff to serve students allergy-free options on plates free from contamination. Collins Dining Hall has begun providing plain white rice at every meal, and Pitzer dining staff have made themselves more accessible to students in regard to special meal requests.  

But Ryan, Pomona’s nutritionist, stated that she was unsure if the 5Cs have data-compiling and reporting processes to track allergen related incidents over the course of academic years.

“We don’t have exact data on how many students have had allergic reactions,” Ryan said. “To my knowledge, in the past couple years, there have been two cases.”

After TSL’s interview with Pomona’s dining staff, Frary Dining Hall posted a catch-all allergen disclaimer at the registers informing diners that dining staff “can offer no guarantees and accept no liability” regarding food-labeling related mishaps.

The risks associated with mislabeling and cross-contamination prompted Millie Hillman SC ’21 to leave her meal plan altogether. Hillman is allergic to wheat, peanuts, sesame, soy, walnuts, and almonds, and also has irritable bowel syndrome. After realizing during her first semester that food from Malott frequently made her feel sick, Hillman decided to start cooking her own food.

But getting off the meal plan took an entire spring semester for Hillman, during which she cooked all her own meals but was still charged for her unused meal plan. In the end, she was reimbursed $1,500 — just half the cost of the semester’s meal plan.

“Having a streamlined process making it easier for students who have allergies to get off the meal plan is so important,” Hillman said. “Obviously, students wanting to get off the meal plan should have to meet with dining staff beforehand, but it shouldn’t be as hellish a process as it was for me.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the wrong pronouns for Molly Yeselson. The article has been updated to reflect that Yeselson’s correct pronouns are they/them/theirs. TSL regrets this error.

This article was last updated Oct. 15 at 9:39 p.m to remove the previous mention of a source, so that the source may keep medical information about their diet private.

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