For many students, the dining hall poses a harmful, and sometimes an even life-threatening risk. Imagine entering the dining hall, scanning all of the meal options available and not knowing one hundred percent if what you are serving yourself is safe. “Of course that grape jelly doesn’t contain gluten!” and “Why would you think that those pancakes contain peanuts?” are common utterances made by your unknowing peers when you express even the smallest amount of caution regarding your dietary restrictions. Even worse, your questions about the ingredients of certain entrees offered evoke glazed-over, blank stares from the working staff. If only all of these people understood the seriousness of your concerns involving your meal. Little do they know that even the tiniest allergens or food contaminants can cause severe reactions, a major consequence of the disguisable issue of cross contact, or cross contamination.
Of course the dining hall scenario described above provides a rather cynical perspective and discriminates against all knowledgeable, cautious students and dining hall staff. In fact, the SU dining services could not be more accommodating when giving specialized attention and creating personalized meal plans for students with allergies, intolerances, sensitivities, and auto-immune diseases. Yet these health conditions cannot be taken lightly and variations of the aforementioned dining hall scenario can cause confusion or uneasiness in certain students. Especially with the increased prevalence of dietary restrictions over the past decade, there is a greater demand for the general public to learn about cross contact, a phenomenon occurring when an allergen is inadvertently transferred from a food containing an allergen to a food that does not contain the allergen. Between 2007 and 2010, it is estimated that between 3.9 percent and 8 percent of children had food allergies, translating to more than three million children. In addition, food allergies increased by 18 percent in children under 18 between 1997 and 2010. Although different health conditions can result in various reactions, the immediate and most dangerous effect of consuming an allergen is called anaphylactic shock, involving rapid swelling of the breathing passage and loss of consciousness. Each year, one in six Americans becomes sick from eating contaminated food and an estimated 125 people die from severe reactions every year.
While noting the severe health risks for students with dietary related conditions, it is time to understand how the other diners play into this dining hall scenario. Students with dietary restrictions have the responsibility of familiarizing themselves with the designated areas from which they can eat in the dining hall, but there are certain precautions and considerate actions that other students can take to help prevent food reactions. For example, if a knife is missing from a strawberry jam dispenser, a student should not take a knife sitting in another food product, such as cream cheese, and use it to obtain the jam. Even if the cream cheese knife has been wiped clean with a napkin before placed into the jam, there could be enough dairy remaining on the knife to cause a reaction in a person who has a dairy allergy or lactose-intolerance. Although invisible, a trace of food on a knife or spoon can cause a reaction.
As for the students with dietary related health conditions, keeping up with a safe diet is not difficult if the right resources are discovered. The SU dining services keep nutritional information and ingredient guides online for all meals offered in our dining halls. Just remember to stay aware of the possibility of cross contact between foods and educate others to take precautions as well. Preventing food reactions is a group effort and affects more than just the high-risk diners involved.
By Allison Milch