Students voice concerns over DDS allergen labeling

by Jennie Rhodes | 2/19/19 3:00am

by Lorraine Liu / The Dartmouth Staff

Throughout the Class of 1953 Commons, there are large signs with the words “Allergy Alert” in red bold letters. These signs state that Dartmouth Dining Services “endeavors to identify and label all known ingredients which are considered common allergens.” However, several students have expressed concerns that DDS has mislabelled allergens and has not adequately allerted diners of possible cross contamination.

Approximately three percent of Dartmouth’s student population has at least one food allergy, according to Dartmouth Dining Services director Jon Plodzik. 

While DDS does not have a full list of students with food allergies, approximately 70 current students have met with DDS prior to attending Dartmouth to inquire about the allergen precautions, according to DDS head nutritionist Beth Rosenberger. However, there are many students who do not request meetings with DDS and “go under the radar,” she said.

“[Those students who fly under the radar] don’t understand how much work we do for them,” Plodzik said. 

DDS uses Computrition, a food labeling and nutrition software, to label its food. The menus for every meal at ’53 Commons, Collis Café, Courtyard Café and Novack Café can be found on the Dartmouth Dining website. 

Online, each dish is labeled with its nutrition facts and ingredients, in addition to symbols denoting the eight major allergens: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans. In addition, allergens including sesame, coconut and pork are also labeled. Food is also denoted if it is halal, kosher, gluten free, vegetarian or vegan.

“Very few things we offer pass through without being labeled correctly,” Plodzik said.

But despite Plodzik’s assurance, students have noted that multiple dishes have been incorrectly labeled.

For example, the 3-foot party sub offered at ’53 Commons on Feb. 8 was labeled as containing dairy, pork, soy and wheat. However, the sesame seed-covered bread lacked a sesame allergen label.

Similarly, while the hummus at the kosher station is labeled as containing sesame, the hummus at the salad bar is not labeled in ’53 Commons as containing sesame (though its listing online does say it contains sesame), noted Liz Cook ’21, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, soy and sesame. 

“People with food allergies are usually pretty good at knowing what we can and can’t eat because we’ve been doing it our whole lives, but it’s concerning when you notice things that are mislabeled,” Cook said. “You have to question everything.”

In some cases, mislabelled dishes have caused allergic reactions. For instance. the Class of 1953 Commons recently removed all desserts containing nuts at its dessert station. John Moreland ’22, who is allergic to nuts, said he believes the change may be due to his having had two severe allergic reactions to the desserts in fall term. He said that the second time he had a reaction, it was because the banana bread he ate was mislabeled. 

During that instance, banana bread that was labeled as not containing nuts was replaced with another banana bread containing walnuts, but the allergy symbol on the paper label of the dessert did not change, Moreland said.

Rosenberg said that nuts were eliminated from the bakery to reduce the chance of allergic reaction or cross-contamination.

However, Moreland said that he has recently seen desserts at ’53 Commons containing nuts.

“Since the new sign got put up, I saw [that] one of the desserts had walnuts in it,” he said. “It was labeled as containing nuts, but was sitting right next to sign that said desserts no longer contain nuts.”

’53 Commons is not the only location that has seen students have allergic reactions. A student had an allergic reaction to Collis stir-fry during fall term when a drop of peanut sauce contaminated their stir-fry, despite the use of a nut-free pan, according to Rosenberg. Since the incident, Collis has stopped serving peanut sauce.

Moreland said he believes it is strange that while the ’53 Commons bakery no longer contains nuts, Collis Café has not taken the same initiative. He added that he is confused at the fact that Collis Café removed the peanut sauce option from its stir-fry station, but ’53 Commons still has salads at the salad bar containing nuts. 

“Clearly [having dishes with nuts] is a health hazard, so why are they not fixing it?” Moreland said. “ ... If they can’t handle [having dishes with nuts], they shouldn’t do it or they should create a better system.”

Beyond incorrect labeling, students have raised concerns about the ease of possible cross-contamination at some parts of ’53 Commons. Moreland questioned why at the toaster station, the peanut butter and Nutella condiments are not separated.

“There are a lot of things that exist in that area that give people with food allergies anxiety,” he said.

Cait McGovern ’21, who is gluten-free, said that she finds it difficult to eat at ’53 Commons, given the dining hall’s select gluten-free options and her fear of possible cross-contamination.

McGovern also noted that even though DDS added a gluten-free sticker to one of the ice cream flavors at ’53 Commons, students use the same scoopers for flavors that contain gluten.

In addition, some students expressed concerns that while some foods are listed by the manufacturers as having possibly been cross-contaminated in their facilities, DDS does not always make this evident. According to Rosenberger, DDS does not list this kind of possible cross-contamination in the allergen labeling present at ’53 Commons.

“If we take into account someone who has a peanut allergy, for example, if we tagged everything that is made in a facility that processes peanuts, they would have nothing to eat,” Rosenberger said.

Some students, however, are bothered by the discrepancy in what possible cross-contaminants are listed online, compared to what is listed in-person. For example, the M&M pancakes offered at ’53 Commons during breakfast are listed online as possibly containing peanuts. However, the in-house allergen label only identifies coconut, milk, wheat and soy.

In the fall term, the bacon served at the Courtyard Café was labeled as potentially containing peanuts (though not pork). When asked, employees at the Courtyard Café stated that the bacon was manufactured with peanuts. However, that labeling disappeared this term. According to Rosenberger, the products’ packaging still states that the bacon is processed in a facility containing peanuts. However, DDS no longer labels it as such because the manufacturer only labels the bacon as “processed in a facility” for liability reasons.

Similarly, Moreland said he often eats the bagels in ’53 Commons that are supplied by Goose and Willie’s. However, after meeting with Rosenberger, Moreland realized that DDS recently discovered all Goose and Willie’s bagels are manufactured in a facility that also contains sesame and nuts. Despite the fact that this meeting was during fall term, and while the online listings for some bagels have been partially updated, Moreland is upset that DDS has still not done anything to change the labels in ’53 Commons. 

Plodzik said that the real danger is other students contaminating dishes with possible allergens.

“If you have a food allergy, you need to pay more attention,” he said.

If students do have an allergic reaction, all DDS staff are trained every five years in administering EpiPens with a refresher every year, according to Rosenberg. 

Nevertheless, Cook believes that DDS needs to take more precautions when it comes to labeling its food and preventing cross-contamination to protect students who have severe allergies. 

“I will say that DDS has taken a lot of steps toward better labeling and minimizing cross contamination since I’ve been here, but there’s still always work to be done,” Cook said.