Opinion—Cheesemageddon at Parsnip

Molly Birch, Social Media Editor

On Feb. 3, Northern Lights Dining served “vegan” chicken parmesan at Parsnip which was not labeled as containing milk when real mozzarella cheese was used. As someone recently diagnosed with a food-bourn allergy, I was concerned after I heard this. How did it happen? How can I know my food is safe? How do we know NLD won’t make this mistake again?

According to Director of Dining Services Paul Schoonveld, a vegetarian version of the chicken parmesan recipe was used accidentally in place of the updated vegan one.

We have worked extremely hard to convert the Parsnip Station from a Vegan and Vegetarian station to a strictly Vegan station in the past two years,” Schoonveld said in an email. “Every menu and recipe is tagged by our Registered Dietician and reviewed by our Operations Management Team, but in this instance, an older recipe slipped through the cracks.”

Upon realizing their error, NLD notified people of their mistake quickly on their social media.

With a goal of transparency, we opted to call out our mistake right away to make everyone aware,” Schoonveld said. “We take allergen tagging very seriously and needed to let our students know, especially those who may have accidentally consumed the allergen or did not realize they had an animal product.”

For context into why this situation makes me nervous, I started showing signs of my own food allergy around the time I turned 16. To make a long and very complicated story short, I had trouble keeping food down sometimes for no discernable reason. Even thinking about eating sometimes made me sick, so I was constantly nauseous. My symptoms only worsened over the years; eventually, I was eating at most one meal a day, though I never knew whether or not I could keep said meal down. I couldn’t figure out what was happening to me.

Clearly, troubleshooting this on my own wasn’t working. In July 2021, a month or so after I turned 18, I finally talked to my doctor. She ordered then a handful of tests and recommended various over the counter and prescribed medications to try to help me eat. None of the first tests came back with anything conclusive. The meds helped control the symptoms, but they couldn’t actually fix the problem, so my doctor ran a food allergy panel. As it turns out, I’m allergic to wheat.

I’m extremely lucky my allergy is moderate. I have yet to go into anaphylactic shock (knock on wood), and the symptoms I experience when I’m exposed to wheat are somewhat manageable. In reality, my case is more of a severe intolerance than an actual allergy. I’m able to be a little less careful than other people as a result, but some have life-threatening allergies and cannot afford to even risk cross-contamination.

For those reasons, mixing up on allergen labeling is one of the worst mistakes any dining institution could possibly make. Those of you who don’t have food allergies might not understand the full weight of it, but this is the kind of mistake that could easily kill someone or leave them seriously incapacitated. Not only that, some people would choose a vegan recipe because they’re vegan, even if they don’t have a food allergy. Mislabeled food could lead someone to consume animal products without knowing about it, and for some, that goes against their personal or even religious beliefs and could cause immense distress.

With that all in mind, NLD has since made some adjustments to hopefully ensure another recipe never slips through their organizational fingers again.

Our Executive Chef, Operations Managers, Registered Dietician and our culinary team are thoroughly reviewing recipes on a daily basis to ensure this does not occur in the future,” Schoonveld said. “We also conducted a follow-up Allergen Training with our culinary team at Northern Lights Dining.”

Obviously, NLD seriously dropped the ball on this one. Mislabeling allergen information could very easily kill someone, but do we need to vilify them? No, absolutely not. In this case, I think it’s important to separate the theoretical consequences of mislabeling allergens from the reality of the situation at hand. This is an easy mistake to make, especially given NLD is transitioning Parsnip from vegan/vegetarian to a fully vegan station. That takes a lot of time, effort and careful consideration; sometimes mistakes are just unavoidable.

At the end of the day, we can’t change the fact that NLD used the wrong recipe. We should, however, acknowledge the urgency with which this mistake was realized, how quickly it was corrected and how well everything was handled behind the scenes. We will have to wait and see, with time, whether or not NLD’s corrective actions will prevent something like this from happening again.