Jason Wu/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Food labels denote dietary restrictons of different offerings at the Alice Cook House Dining Room, Alice Cook House, May 4, 2022.

September 28, 2022

Cornell’s Food Allergy Labeling Isn’t Just for Show

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Amid this weekend’s homecoming festivities, I witnessed something truly horrible in a West Campus dining hall. Let me set the scene. It was around 6:30 p.m. in Bethe dining hall, the crowd was moderate and an air of excitement filled the room. Students were stopping in for a bite to eat and a break from the busy day before heading out to whatever celebratory evening plans they had. As I waited in line to grab my food, I suddenly look over to see a (red-eyed) guy cut the line and violently grab the serving tongs, throw food onto his plate, get said food all over the floor and into the other food containers and then proceed to literally throw the tongs halfway across the counter and leave. 

Everyone around me was notably disgusted by this rude behavior, but I cringed for more reasons than the flagrant disrespect and straight up slobbery: he messed up the food, getting the beans into the meat and the cheese into the lettuce containers. Not only is this rude, but this is dangerous for people with food allergies and restrictions — people like me. 

While perusing the dining halls, you might have noticed Cornell’s allergy labeling for each dish, outlining what major allergens are in the food and if it’s vegan or not. As you probably know, this is very important for people with food allergies and restrictions to know about when selecting food. From my own experience, Cornell’s allergy labeling is very helpful (especially compared to that at other schools), meaning that I don’t have to constantly ask about ingredients when I go to the dining hall. 

So, stupid behavior like what I saw in Bethe last weekend not only is rude to the overworked dining staff who have to clean it up, but also puts fellow students with food allergies in danger. What happens when you want lettuce but there’s cheese in it? Then you’ll have a lettuce-less taco (very sad).

While that behavior is by far out of the norm, there are nevertheless problems with the allergy system on campus on the part of both students and the dining halls. Starting with the students, it’s honestly pretty simple — please be careful not to mix food when serving yourself at the dining hall. Letting that cheese slip into the neighboring container can mean ruining it for someone else. Simply being aware of why keeping the food separate is important can help make dining halls a more pleasant experience for everyone (and save the workers from extra cleanup). 

Other than the students needing to be overall less messy, the dining halls themselves can take a few very easy steps to save people from allergic reactions. First, they should avoid placing particularly messy food containing major allergens next to food without allergens. What immediately comes to mind is the salad bar or the toppings line for taco nights. Putting loose cheese right next to other toppings is a recipe for cross contamination. By separating the allergen toppings from the others, that would avoid the problem of allergens falling into the wrong container.

But beyond food placement, there is a small but prominent gap in Cornell Dining’s food allergy labels in almost all dining locations: the label “tree nut.” Let me explain. For those of you who may not know, the allergen tree nut officially encompases a variety of different foods that fall within the broad category of tree nut, the six main tree nut allergens being walnut, almond, hazelnut, pecan, cashew and pistachio. This is an important differentiation from peanuts, which is a separate allergen but does have some overlap. 

However, Cornell Dining uses the term tree nut too broadly to encompass another sub-category of allergen that does not always overlap: coconut. While coconut can be technically considered a tree nut, not everyone with a tree nut allergy is allergic to coconut, and not everyone allergic to coconut is allergic to tree nuts. So, you can imagine why the “tree nut” label can be confusing when you encounter it in the dining hall, especially when (in my experience) a majority of the time the label actually refers to coconut and not tree nuts. While coconut is not one of the major allergens, people with coconut allergies are often misled by Cornell’s labeling (I know a friend who had an allergic reaction from this confusing labeling). 

This is a major flaw with the labeling that could be easily fixed by differentiating between tree nut and coconut on the label. If the label tree nut was used in conjunction with coconut, such as “tree nut/coconut” to refer to the allergen being coconut, and the plain label “tree nut” used when there are nuts such as almonds in it, it would be much easier to students to quickly identify what’s safe to eat in the dining hall.

Food allergies are serious — students and dining halls alike have to pay more attention to cross contamination and labeling. While Cornell has made great strides to make its dining halls accessible and safe to everyone, they must refine their labeling process to be more specific when it comes to the label “tree nut” and be careful about container placement. And students, please don’t be stupid; be careful when it comes to food, because there’s more at stake than just what’s on your plate.

Emma Leynse is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She currently serves as the associate editor on the 140th Editorial Board. She can be reached at [email protected].