Every student with an on-campus housing contract at the Pennsylvania State University also purchases a meal plan. The money deposited into this account is most often used to eat at the buffet service in the dining commons. Penn State Housing and Food Services works to provide a wide array of eating options for all students, including vegan, vegetarian and kosher items. However, the needs of students with severe food allergies and intolerances are underrepresented in the dining commons. The labeling above each dish includes only a minimal amount of information: the name of the dish, serving size, caloric content, and meatless or vegan status. While students can ask workers of the commons if a particular dish contains a particular allergen, the servers may not be fully aware of potential cross contaminants. Upon inquiring further, a manager of West Dining Commons reported that the full nutrition facts and ingredients list for each dish on the daily menu are available online at www.hfs.psu.edu/foodpro. Also, if requested, a student nutrition assistant can provide advice on food options in the dining commons. However, with the prevalence of food allergies and rushed dining schedules throughout the student body, these options are inconvenient. A more easily accessible method of labeling potential reaction-inducing food items is needed, not only to make the students’ lives easier, but also safer.
According to the Penn State Housing and Food Services website, “Penn State Campus Dining will not assume any liability for adverse reactions to foods consumed, or items one may come in contact with while eating at any University establishments.” Despite this disclaimer, it is the responsibility of the university to do what they can in order to protect the students paying for dining services. Dining commons must take note of not only allergies (defined as immunological responses to food) but also intolerances, which are metabolic or digestive responses. Common allergens are peanuts, treenuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish, while common intolerances include dairy and eggs. While different in biological manifestation, both allergies and intolerances can cause serious adverse effects in people who suffer from reactions. Food allergies have always presented a problem for children and adults, and studies show that their prevalence is rapidly increasing. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of reported food allergies increased 18%(Branum, 2008). Though as many as 80% children outgrow food allergies, only 20% are able to outgrow peanut allergies, and recent research reports that it is taking longer and longer to develop tolerance to food allergens (Leonard, 2010).
Students suffering with food allergies often need to look past the first few ingredients on a list to assure that a particular food is actually safe. Many methods of food preparation use allergens or derivatives that could potentially cause a reaction, even in small amounts. For example, casein (a milk derivative) is often used a binder in meats and seafood. Pre-mixed salad may have a dressing containing fish oil. Breading and crusts on meats and pies often have ground tree nuts in them. Because of the many ways an allergen can accidentally be introduced to a dish, awareness of the importance of separating food with potential allergens needs to be impressed on all levels of the Penn State Housing and Food Services staff (Sampson, 2003).
Because of the increase in people with allergies and the number of ways they can be encountered, university food services nationwide need to become more conscious about food safety for the sake of their students. Food allergies cause 35%-50% cases of anaphylaxis, which lead to almost 200 deaths each year (The Diagnosis and Management of Anaphylaxis, 2005). Allergy information that is unclear or difficult to find greatly...