Junior R.D. Stoepker and sophomore Edward Coe struggle with their severe food allergies on campus.
Stoepker is on the “six-food elimination diet,” which includes the top eight allergens.
“It’s an experimental diet to try to figure out what you’re allergic to,” Stoepker said. “It’s kind of hard to tell what it is you’re allergic to during it, so I can’t really tell if I’m having a reaction or not.”
The idea of the diet is to wipe out the major allergens and introduce them one by one to see which cause a reaction and which do not.
Coe, on the other hand, has an anaphylactic dairy allergy, meaning his white blood cells mistakenly think the proteins in milk are foreign invaders and attack them.
Coe notices he had something with dairy within 5- 10 seconds because he has a skin reaction in his mouth.
“The thing is, after that happens there’s like this moment or period of time where it doesn’t get any worse and then my throat starts to swell,” Coe said, “I swell up like a blimp and you can’t recognize me.”
It took a lot of research and time for both of them to find what they could and could not eat in the dining halls.
“At first you don’t eat much of anything,” Coe said. “Freshman year I ate pretty much just salad.”
Dining services provides a website with all the food items and their ingredient lists. Both Coe and Stoepker used this resource to determine what they could eat.
The website also provides an allergen filter, with the top eight allergens for students, that filters all the items they can eat.
“It will filter all of the menu items based on what they have chosen and whether they have chosen to list everything that contains that item or everything that does not contain it,” said Jennifer Lindsey, administrative dietician.
After that, students can still look at the ingredient listing just to make sure everything has been filtered out.
However, Virginia Tech’s food manufacturer, U.S. Foods, often changes its recipes and ingredient listings.
U.S. Foods has a database where information on the ingredients can be found and if that information is not provided, a Tech sales rep will contact them, according to Lindsey.
“To make sure that that information is correct, because the manufacturer can change it at any time, we routinely audit products,” Lindsey said.
At least once a semester, about 100 items are reviewed to make sure their labels match the database. These items are chosen through a computer system that shows the most used and purchased items. They have found items that haven’t matched in the past.
“We found a few things because manufacturers can just change their ingredients listing at will without telling us,” Lindsey said. “But we also instruct our cooks and everyone that’s using the product that if they see the label looks different to tear off that label and send it to me immediately.”
For people with allergies, like Coe and Stoepker, the change in ingredient listings can threaten their life.
“I’m a little bit numb to the fact that things are going to change and I know, personally, I don’t check online regularly since I’ve been doing this for so long,” Coe said.
Dining services realizes most students won’t look at the website every day for changes, so they place a sign at the point of service with a warning.
However, the problem runs deeper than just food labeling. While the website is useful, Coe and Stoepker agree there are still several issues with it.
According to Coe, the filter isn’t perfect. In his case, it doesn’t catch the processed meats that have a milk derivative that could kill him. Also, the ingredient listings don’t include what dining halls use to cook the food.
“I would really like to see them have a ‘may contain traces of’ system,” Stoepker said.
“We cook this on the same thing as that which contains these things, because that’s what I spend most of my time trying to figure out.”
Coe says the issue lies more in training and food preparation than in ingredients listings.
“A lot of the breakdowns in the system that I’ve seen aren’t the actual system itself,” he said. “It’s the servers, because from what I can tell, they don’t really train them that well.”
The lack of awareness among servers causes little mistakes that can set off an allergic reaction.
According to Stoepker, in D2 they put the food a lot of people are allergic to farther away, so when they serve the other food that few people are allergic to over it, the foods end up being mixed.
However, Coe found if he tells the servers what he needs they will work to make it happen.
“Every time I go to get a Chai at Deets, I have to get a Chai with soy and I ask them if they can clean it off the steamer and they’re always really good about that,” Coe said.
According to Jessica Filip, the training and project coordinator for dining services, everybody hired into dining services goes through an orientation and must pass a food safety 100 course.
The course does review allergies and how to work with a customer that has allergies.
Despite the different issues surrounding their allergies, Coe and Stoepker have found a useful system at Tech to find foods that will not cause a reaction.
“I think more than anything, Tech is the best at this,” Coe said. “I’m just really happy I’m here as opposed to any other place because it would be a nightmare.”