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Capitalizing on Veganism, at what cost?

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

“This can’t be happening, I’m at a vegan restaurant”. Those were Vittoria Rabito’s thoughts as she injected her epi pen in the washroom of a vegan restaurant, a place that she thought was a safe place to eat, given she has a severe milk allergy. The restaurant claims to be free of all milk products, because the restaurant only serves vegan food and drinks.

“Milk free”, “dairy free”, “lactose free”, vegan; these claims are becoming increasingly popular on food product labels and in restaurants. But what do these different claims mean for people who choose to avoid dairy for personal or ethical reasons versus somebody with a severe milk allergy? And to what extent do restaurateurs understand the impact of their claims beyond the market opportunity to serve a growing niche of wanting consumers?

"this cant be happening, I'm at a vegan restaurant"

Foodmaestro had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Rabito, from Toronto, Canada, who had firsthand experience with how the lack of standard definitions of these claims, education and food safety process can have life-threatening risks. Vittoria suffers from a severe milk allergy that can result in anaphylactic shock when consuming even the smallest amount of milk protein. Whilst eating at a popular vegan restaurant in Toronto’s west end with her friend, a restaurant she had eaten at before, with the assumption that a vegan restaurant would be free of all milk and milk products. Vittoria made her server aware of her severe milk allergy and the server “confidently explained” that they are a vegan restaurant and that no milk products are ever brought onto the premises. This gave Vittoria the confidence to order her meal with peace of mind and excited to enjoy an evening with her friend.

Five minutes after taking a bite into her “pulled pork” tacos, Vittoria knew something wasn’t right. She started to experience symptoms of anaphylactic shock, similar to what she had experienced once before, two years prior when eating at a Thai restaurant in a food court. She ran to the washroom to inject herself with an epi pen, her body shaking, thinking “this can’t be happening, I’m at a vegan restaurant”. Vittoria was rushed to the hospital where it took a couple of hours to recover from the anaphylactic shock. Vittoria’s quick actions in response to her anaphylactic shock saved her own life as she explained, “If I hadn’t reacted so fast it could’ve gone very differently”. Vittoria was in the hospital for a total of six hours. She was also forced to return to the hospital a few days later because the steroids she was given for her reaction contained lactose, which led to an additional a reaction in her stomach for the days following the incident.

The vegan restaurant was in contact with Vittoria following the incident with the explanation that the seasoning used on the vegan pulled pork tacos may contain traces of milk, however, this packaged seasoning arrives at the restaurant in an unlabelled package. A chain of avoidable events occurred that resulted in Vittoria’s hospitalization.

“May contain” and other precautionary allergy statements are not required or regulated by Health Canada. Rather, these types of statements are considered voluntary and consumers are encouraged to call food manufacturers to obtain information of concern. This creates a “safety gap” within the system creating opportunity for misinterpretation and or avoidable injury or death; The restaurant failed to have adequate processes in place in determining the ingredients they choose to use and ensuring these ingredients live up to their claims; The server failed to interpret the gravitas of Milk allergy and was over confident in their assumption and associated risk; These are all avoidable scenarios, where had the right controls, education and research; been in place, would have avoided this incident.

Since this event, which occurred on November 9, 2018, Vittoria has not been out to eat, not even to the sushi restaurants she trusted in the past. It is common for people with severe allergies to have a fear of the restaurant and food industry. Ms. Rabito recalls “bringing my own food to events and parties, including always bringing sushi to weddings which can be embarrassing”. Vittoria actively reads food labels as she has seen one of her childhood favourite flavours of chips all of a sudden contain skim milk powder years later. She avoids packaged foods whenever possible and is very hesitant to try new foods. If she does want to try a new product, it involves reading the label more than once and spending several minutes doing a Google search on the product for comments or reviews related to allergies.

The rise in dairy-free and vegan products has offered a large variety of choice for people choosing to avoid dairy for health or ethical reasons. However, without a regulated definition of dairy-free or vegan combined with regulated controls and processes, the risk to those with milk and egg allergies remains extremely high. The vegan restaurant where Vittoria’s incident happened claims they are “ethically vegan”, rather than truly milk- and egg-free, which begs the question as to the motivations and who the restaurants are looking to serve. Vittoria explained, “The restaurant industry should be aware of what the main food allergens are and better articulate how much cross contamination is allowed for milk allergens for dairy-free and vegan items”.

The industry at large, has made significant progress over the years, however there is still a long way to go. Given where we are with technology, the ability to share data instantly and translate that data into meaningful consumer experiences, we expect progress to increase rapidly. That being said, any such progress would require industry bodies to provide adequate motivation through regulation, something that has been welcomed within the CPG industry where we see significant progress and advances in labelling requirements, albeit not yet perfect.

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