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Photo: Isabella Cuan

Now there's a good reason to cry over spilled milk — thanks to 1920 Commons. 

In August 2014, Victoria Greene was hospitalized following a severe allergic reaction after eating food at Commons that had been labeled as vegan. Bon Appétit still stands by their food labeling procedures.

“I have a serious food allergy to dairy, so I avoid anything with milk in it,” Greene said, adding that she was cautious to eat at the dining halls at first. “I slowly became more comfortable with it and was having success with food with the ‘vegan’ label on it." 

Vegan foods are prepared without and contain no products from animals, so it is understood to be dairy-free. The food labeled "vegan" that Greene consumed one afternoon was found to contain small amounts of cheese, she said, but was not labeled as such. 

“It was a wholeheartedly unpleasant experience. I think they fired the chef responsible for what had happened," Greene said. "They had assured me that they would be more careful with the labels in the future.”

Communications Director for Business Services, which oversees Penn Dining, Barbara Lea-Kruger said they could not comment on situations with individual students. 

Upon returning to the dining halls, Greene did not have much better luck. “About one month later, I got another reaction to a food labeled ‘vegan’, but thankfully it wasn’t nearly as bad — I didn’t have to go to the hospital or anything like that,” Greene said.

She said that normally the labels were accurate and that she didn't think the problem was the labeling. “It’s very hard not to have slight cross-contamination in an open dining hall, and I have such a sensitive allergy that even a little drop of something could trigger it," she said.

Bon Appétit stands by the integrity of its labeling, saying that they bring "whole, fresh foods" into their kitchens. “It’s easy for us to know exactly what’s in all of the food we serve," Bon Appétit nutritionist Dan Connolly said.

Chefs create the menus of dining facilities with students’ needs in mind. “Each facility has its vegan options all of the time,” Connolly said. Each dining hall has a self-serve salad bar, soup kettles with at least one vegan soup, various vegetable and fruit options and a vegan station.

“We maintain a constant conversation about labeling and food safety that’s always in the forefront of our employees’ minds — from the dishwasher up to the campus executive chef," he said.

Connolly said he personally inspects the dining facilities daily. “I do spot checks — I go and see how food is prepared and double check that it is what the menu says it is,” he said.

By the end of the lunch and dinnertime rush, it is typical for the condiments to be moved from their proper location and salad stations to be in disarray. “Self-serve stations have an added risk of cross contamination with other foods, and this is across the board for food establishments everywhere,” Connolly said.

The dining cafes are designed to reduce the cross-contact of different foods, but the possibility is always there although they place potential allergens towards the front to avoid cross-contact.

Bon Appétit is willing to accommodate students with strict diets or severe allergies if they reach out to staff. "We are happy to get food from the back or arrange special meals,” Connolly said.

Penn Vegan Society works with Bon Appétit to both increase vegan dietary options and to ensure that vegan labels are accurate. “One of the first initiatives of PVS was to improve the labeling and to expand the options of vegan food being served,” PVS co-president Brianna Krejci said.

"[Labeling] is an imperfect system still. Not every worker responsible for labeling the food knows every ingredient that has gone into the food or everything the has gone on back in the kitchen,” Krejci said. A chef may accidentally prepare vegan food with a utensil used for something else, or food may splash while being prepared or transported. “Employees are not all educated in nutrition, so it’s hard to fault them for some of the mistakes that happen," she said, adding that management has been "incredibly responsive."

PVS wants to increase the transparency of the ingredients on labels, and increase the food safety education of the employees responsible. PVS hopes to improve the transparency of the ingredients in the vegan options available. “We want to maintain the consistency of labeling,” PVS co-president Berenice Leung said. “Food that is vegan should be regularly labeled as such, and it’s important to know what’s exactly in the food being served.”

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