According to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), an organization which aims to educate the public on the prevalence and impact of food allergies, as of Feb. 2019, over 32 million Americans are currently living with some type of food allergy. Among those cases, 51 percent of adults have experienced a severe allergic reaction from food, and 42 percent of children have had a severe allergic reaction from food.
With food allergies having such a strong and widespread impact on varying scales, Muhlenberg has recently been taking additional precautionary steps towards ensuring a safe dining environment for all members of the campus community. All of these dining and food-related procedures are indicated on Muhlenberg’s newly established web page in the FARE database.
“I think it’s great what the dining hall is doing for food allergies,” said Jenna Levin ‘21. “It’s good to know that they are being proactive and mindful about such an important health issue.”
Muhlenberg Dining Registered Dietitian Susan Hurd, Muhlenberg Dining General Manager John Pasquarello and Muhlenberg Dining Marketing Manager Erin Foertsch collectively discussed the implementation of many of these food-allergy accommodations.
“Students are now able to see all allergens on menu screens so they’re able to determine if a food is safe for them.”
“Food allergies is an issue our department takes very seriously,” they emphasized. “With the help and input from many campus stakeholders, we successfully developed an allergen database to minimize the risk for cross-contact of foods that contain allergens with those that do not. This includes attention to all prep, cooking, service and dining surfaces in addition to the actual receiving, storage prep, cooking and service of the food itself.”
The recent addition of Muhlenberg to the FARE database presents the college as a leader in food allergy awareness. According to the database, Muhlenberg offers 12 of the 14 outlined accommodations for students dealing with food allergies. The database groups these accommodations into three categories pertaining to different departments: Dining Services, Campus Life & Disabilities and Emergency Response.
“One of the more noticeable steps taken was to label food items in the dining commons with allergens,” Dining Services explained. “Students are now able to see all allergens on menu screens so they’re able to determine if a food is safe for them.”
Menu items are appropriately labeled if they include one of the top eight allergens: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybean. Tree nut and peanut allergies have had a particularly impactful presence on campus.
Last fall, a mislabeling incident pertaining to nuts led to a student experiencing an allergic reaction. This circumstance resulted in Dining Services conducting a “self-audit” for foods containing peanuts and tree nuts. Foods with these allergens were removed, assessed and then eventually returned to the menu. Extra precautions, as demonstrated throughout the database, have since been put in place.
“As the needs of our students change and evolve, our protocols change with them. It was important to conduct this self-audit to determine where the most impactful changes needed to be made,” said Dining Services.
Some students, however, still see limitations with dining procedures.
“There’s a lot of cross-contamination in the dining hall,” said Devin Goldsmith ‘21. “I’m really not able to eat the desserts, after all of the allergic reactions I’ve heard of.”
Procedures have been set forth to attempt to lower the risk of cross-contamination in both self-serve and made-to-order dining stations. Dining Services staff members are trained at least once a year to ensure proper handling of food. Training topics include Food Allergy 101 and avoiding cross-contamination and emergency procedures, among others.
“Developing and training our employees on new standards of operation was challenging due to the number of employees in our department and the variety of employee work schedules,” explained Dining Services. “It is also a challenge to ensure all labeling is correct for each meal due to circumstances beyond our control, such as changes in products from our suppliers and in ingredients used by food vendors. Additionally, we have customers with allergies beyond the scope of the top eight required by law.”
Despite these challenges, Dining Services ensures that they continue to take food allergies very seriously. This semester, epinephrine is now stocked within Seegers Union, and emergency responders carry it as well.
“Epinephrine is the first-line treatment for anaphylaxis, a severe and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction,” according to FARE. “This self-injectable medication is approved by the FDA as a safe and highly effective medication that can reverse severe allergy symptoms.”
Epinephrine is also one of the additional topics discussed throughout dining services staff training, as indicated by the FARE database.
“With the help and input from many campus stakeholders we successfully developed an allergen database to minimize the risk for cross-contact of foods that contain allergens with those that do not.”
While Muhlenberg offers almost all of the available accommodations for students with food allergies, there is still room to grow. As of now, there is no allergy-friendly station available in the dining hall, and Residential Advisors have not been trained in allergy education. The latter, however, will be happening soon.
“RA training should be coming in this fall via the AllerRA program that Residential Life contracted with,” said Dining Services. “There are currently no plans to introduce an allergy-friendly station on campus.”
Muhlenberg’s leadership in food has led to the campus being listed as the number one best college food in Pennsylvania and number 27 best college food in the country for Niche’s 2020 rankings. While there are many factors leading to this outcome, Dining Services does feel that positive student reviews pertaining to food allergy awareness could have contributed to these high rankings.
In addition to published rankings, there has been other forms of positive feedback from students.
“We have also received a substantial number of positive comments from students (through our annual surveys, verbal comments and interactions with members of the Muhlenberg community, napkin comments, etc.) based on our changes in allergen protocols and signage,” noted Dining Services.
In order to continue to promote a healthy dining environment for students, they are encouraged to contact the Office of Disability Services to develop an accommodation plan for food allergies, celiac disease or any other concerns.
As Muhlenberg continues to implement and improve ways of managing food allergies, Dining Services reminds students to be accountable for themselves as well.
“Customers should be their own advocate, always carry their medicine with them, have an emergency plan, let those with whom they dine know they have food allergies and ask questions when they dine with us,” they said.
Photo: Conner Baker ’22 looks at the ingredients on the Chew St. Deli menu, Credit: Alec Sodel