In response to a student’s violent allergic reaction to mislabeled dining hall food last spring, Yale Dining has begun to roll out a new picture-based label system to help students easily identify meals containing allergens.
Yale Dining will add eight food allergen stickers — intended to identify egg, soy, fish and other common allergens — to labels that currently list ingredients and nutritional information in dining halls. Though the stickers were supposed to be phased in two weeks ago, Yale Dining faced delays with its labeling printer and hopes to introduce the stickers next semester. Students with allergies said the new stickers will not help with the mislabeling that persists in the dining halls, but added that the stickers will make it easier to identify what allergens a dish contains.
“I think the stickers are a fabulous idea,” said Chloe Drimal ’13, who has a gluten allergy. “To have a quick, visual way to identify key allergens will be really helpful. But often food will be outright mislabeled, and the stickers won’t fix the fact that certain ingredients don’t show up on the label when they are in the dish.”
The new stickers are part of a larger effort to address allergy labeling on Yale Dining dishes. Director of Residential Dining Cathy Van Dyke SOM ’86 assembled a focus group last spring to study how Yale Dining can better address student allergies after a student had a severe reaction to mislabeled food. The focus group — made up of Van Dyke, Director of the Resource Office on Disabilities Judy York, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Master of Timothy Dwight College Jeffrey Brenzel and representatives from Yale’s General Council — prepared a form for students to identify their allergies and the severity of their reactions to various allergens, which Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry sent students in an email on Aug. 29, 2012. Though Van Dyke said about 60 students filled out the form, she added that more frequent Yale Dining surveys show that “more like 120 students” have food allergies.
When Yale Dining begins to use the stickers in the spring, chefs will include them when they make specials, as such dishes require dining staff to print new labels. Van Dyke added that dining halls will incorporate stickers on all food labels next academic year.
“We already use these stickers in posters in the dining halls, and so it made sense to expand and include them in the individual food labels,” Van Dyke said. “The group was trying to think of ways to improve our communication and signage, and these stickers look much neater.”
While both Van Dyke and Jeffrey Kwolek, Timothy Dwight College dining manager, said the stickers are based on “internationally recognized symbols,” neither could name the organization that makes the labels.
Students with food allergies said the stickers do not address the problem of mislabeled food in dining halls. Julian Debenedetti ’15, who is allergic to dairy, soy, nuts, fish and shellfish, said he had to go to the hospital three times last year after eating mislabeled food.
“The labeling system in and of itself is not a bad system — the problem is that many times the food’s ingredients are not all listed on the labels,” Debenedetti said. “Nothing really changed until I emailed my master and dean, and they got much more concrete results. … This year it’s largely been better, but that’s more a product of me talking to the chefs more often.”
Zoe Egelman ’13, who is allergic to peanuts, also pointed out that many students with allergies are used to reading ingredient lists, and so visual stickers may not be that much more helpful.
Next summer, the allergy form Gentry emailed to all undergraduates will be incorporated into the freshmen housing survey, Van Dyke said.