Time and time again, Pembroke College reassured me that the catering department takes allergies seriously. Yet, there I sat in A&E, dressed in my heels and gown, feeling absurdly overdressed for the hospital waiting room. “How could this have happened again?” I questioned, after being served sesame at formal hall for the third year in a row.

The night went like this: I was initially served a meat dish, despite pre-ordering a pescatarian meal. After asking for the vegetarian option instead, I routinely checked the ingredients. No sesame, or so I was confidently told. One spoonful later, something wasn’t right. Itchy lips, dry mouth, and panic set in all too quick. I quickly asked the server: “Is there tahini in this?”. For those unaware, as catering seemed to be, tahini is a sauce made from ground sesame. Without hesitation, I stabbed an epipen into my thigh. It wasn’t long before I realised that my suspicions were correct. The candle lit dining hall was soon replaced with a sterile ambulance and the flawless china plates were swapped out for cardboard sick bowls.

I later discovered that an error had occurred meaning catering received the wrong dietary information. As a result, they hadn’t prepared a sesame-free, pescatarian meal. More than a month has passed and I’m still none the wiser on what caused this fatal error. Nor has there been any explanation about why catering were seemingly clueless that the tahini contained sesame. Yes, mistakes happen. But this wasn’t the first time. In 2021, at my very first formal, I was served bread containing sesame. In 2022, I was served tahini yoghurt.

I’m not the only one either. Following the latest incident, I spoke with other Pembroke students who experienced similar issues with catering. One student — allergic to dairy, eggs and nuts — said they were seriously ill after being served the wrong meal. “[Catering] didn’t apologise at all. And no changes were implemented” they said. It’s especially disappointing given that Pembroke’s catering department was awarded its Allergen Accreditation in 2015, and is described as being a “great facility that meets the needs of students with allergies exceptionally well”.

“there is no guarantee that it won’t be fatal for a student”

Allergic reactions can be life-threatening if they escalate into anaphylaxis. In the past twenty years, hospital admissions for food-related anaphylaxis more than doubled to 5,013 in 2022/23, up from 1,971 in 2002/3. It’s only a matter of time before catering’s luck runs out. If situations like mine happen again, there is no guarantee that it won’t be fatal for a student.

Think of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, 15, who died in 2016, after eating an artichoke, olive and tapenade baguette from Pret-a-Manger, containing unlabelled sesame. Pret-a-Manger had 9 sesame incidents the year before. Last year, Georgina Mansergh, 24, died after a Dorset pub served her a mushroom risotto containing tahini. The masters student had previously only suffered mild reactions such as tingly lips or vomiting. Georgina’s tragic death hit home for me. I too have only ever suffered mild reactions and frankly underestimated their seriousness. If I had eaten the whole plate at the formal, things may have been very different.

In recent years, more has been done to improve the lives of those living with allergies. Natasha’s Law now requires all ingredients to be listed on all food products. The current campaign for Owen’s Law hopes to make allergy information compulsory on the face of menus, named after Owen Carey, 18, who died in 2017, after eating a chicken burger containing buttermilk.

A new allergy communication app, Shivlet, has recently been developed, in memory of Shiv Mistry, 18, who died in 2022, after drinking a cocktail containing milk. Pasidu Perera, a Pembroke student, is working alongside Shiv’s parents to build the app, which can translate 19 allergens into 136 languages. “Our vision is to hopefully get this compatible for other apps which distribute food, like Upay for formals, or food deliveries, so that there’s a standardised way of communicating allergies online” he said.

“checking ingredients is a habitual part of daily life”

Pembroke’s allergen-free serving station in trough is an example of where the catering department succeeds. Nevertheless, there are still ways which Pembroke can make life easier for allergy sufferers, such as updating the formal hall’s menu design so that allergens are displayed fully.

For allergy sufferers, checking ingredients is a habitual part of daily life. Removing the opportunity to read allergen lists can remove our sense of control over what we are eating. Pembroke already provides this sort of menu for ordinary dinner service, so this would be a simple but significant change.


Mountain View

Student spaces are what we make of them

Commenting on the idea, one Pembroke student said: “Agree 100000% — when places have this I feel SO much more comfortable and safe. Other troughs have it too”. Jesus College’s formal hall menu sets an example for this design. Inspiration can also be taken from Fitzwilliam College, a joint-winner of the FreeFrom Eating Out Award in 2015, who use an impressive online Saffron System, which displays the allergen and nutrition information for all their buttery dishes, in a clear, tick-box format.

Allergic reactions shouldn’t be something which allergy sufferers should have to ‘get used to’ and they certainly shouldn’t be caused by the college trusted to keep us safe. For the sake of its current and future students, Pembroke must take action now to ensure this doesn’t happen again. We shouldn’t wait until a student suffers from anaphylaxis to start seeing change.

When approached for comment, a spokesperson for Pembroke college said: “Our duty of care to our students prevents us from discussing incidents concerning communication of their private medical circumstances”.