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Terrible Gluten Free Food Experience at Ursula Hall, The Australian National University (ANU)

Updated on November 17, 2014

Main Wing, Ursula Hall

Ursula Hall Front Entrance
Ursula Hall Front Entrance | Source

Map of The ANU

A markerUrsula Hall, ANU -
Ursula Hall, The Australian National University, Acton ACT 2601, Australia
get directions

Introduction

This article, on 10 October 2012, highlights the appalling experience of myself as a gluten sensitive resident and diner in the Main Wing of Ursula Hall - a residence owned and operated by The Australian National University (ANU), in Canberra, Australia - over the past couple of years (i.e. February 2010 - June 2012).

Situated in a nice, quiet location at the university, Ursula Hall (aka Ursies) is the smallest student residence on campus. With the Australian National Botanic Gardens just a walk up the road, and the calm Lake Burley Griffin just a mere kilometre away, it truly is a wonderful area.

Of course, seeing as though the college is owned and operated by such a top institution (and one of the best universities, not just in Australia) I, along with my family, was sure that they would be able to accommodate a gluten-free diet without any fuss whatsoever. Nonetheless, I phoned the Ursula Hall Reception in the middle of 2009 just to be sure that this would not be a problem. They confirmed that they would be able to accommodate a gluten free diet, assuring me that gluten free meals are made every day. This sounded great! I truly felt that they understood and respected the importance of gluten free and as such, I decided to enrol for accommodation that would begin in 2010.

The First Day

Saturday the 13th of Februrary (2010) was the day that I checked in at the Hall. It was a cloudy, rainy and wet day. Most of the students at the residence on that day would remember it well as the weather was quite extreme for the Canberra region. I arrived at around 10 in the morning and was shown to my room by the Senior Resident (SR) who would be in charge of our floor. Both my mum and I reminded the admin staff about my gluten free dietary requirements, and were assured (by the people at the desk) that this would not be a problem.

My Ursies Room

Room B224 (2010)
Room B224 (2010)

Lunch Time

The clock struck 12:30 and an announcement was made into the loudspeaker saying that it was lunchtime. I headed down to the dining hall and saw GF (gluten free), DF (dairy free) and V (vegetarian) symbols on the board. Of course, I confirmed with the server that GF stood for gluten free. It was an indoor barbecue-style lunch. I also noted that the chips (i.e. french fries) were also marked GF on the board and assumed that they would be safe. I figured that if they were marking them as GF they must have been cooked in their own dedicated deep fryer.

Or so I thought...

Deceived by the Head Chef

It was not until a couple of weeks later (after o-week had finished and my studies were underway) that I realised I really was not feeling like my normal self. My energy levels had declined and a whole host of symptoms began to impact my quality of life - symptoms that started reminding me of the reason I was on a gluten free diet in the first place.

I went home for the Easter break and noticed that my energy levels rose again and I really felt ready for the second teaching period. Within two (2) weeks of being back at college all of my symptoms returned, so I started off by quizzing the head chef about whether the chips actually were gluten free. S/he said that they were. I then asked if they were cooked in the same oil that had been used to fry other foods that contained gluten and got a very rude and inappropriate response:

Look, mate! It really depends, that very little bit of gluten that gets through isn't really going to hurt!

This dismissive response was something I got from the head chef on several occasions when I brought up, what would be considered by the medical community, genuine and legitimate concerns.

That very little bit of gluten that gets through will hurt someone who requires a strict and lifelong gluten free diet.

Over the course of time that I spent at Ursies, I noticed the following menu items on the board listed as gluten free:

Beef and Barley Stew GF, DF

Cous Cous V, GF, DF

Traditional Pasta Bake V, GF

... and numerous others including wheat-containing gravies, sauces, pastes, puddings, pies and more... (all incorrectly mislabelled GF at more than one point in time during my stay)

I didn't say anything the first time, but clearly they were not telling the truth. Not only were they misusing this label by almost certainly contaminating other meals marked as GF (based on the symptoms I was experiencing), they were also misusing it by appearing to not even know which grains contain gluten!

Just to be clear, gluten is defined as "a protein in wheat, barley, rye and oats". Products derived from these ingredients will also contain gluten.

Since when is a "Beef and Barley Stew" gluten free?

Since when is "Cous Cous" (i.e. in the form of wheat) gluten free?

And of course, since when is a "Traditional Pasta Bake" (i.e. traditional pasta made from wheat semolina) gluten free?

Living in Fear

Late last year (i.e. 2011), things just got really out of hand for me and I fell apart. I was nutritionally deprived, not only as a result of the kitchen staff being inconsistent about providing gluten free cereal and bread (due to budget concerns) but also as a result of immune mediated damage from all the gluten cross-contamination that appeared to be taking place very frequently. My dorm room was a mess, I lost some friends and was in quite a mental state. I felt sick from morning to evening and subsequently left The ANU in July, 2012.

Occasional Exposure to Small Amounts of Gluten

Here is a quote from the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, that summarises what the medical community has to say about this public health issue:

"Eating any gluten, no matter how small an amount, can damage your intestine. This is true for anyone with the disease, including people who do not have noticeable symptoms. It can take weeks for antibody levels (indicating intestinal damage) to normalize after a person with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity has consumed gluten."

Not everyone who is gluten intolerant becomes ill if gluten is ingested on a one-off occasion. Others become severely incapacitated within a couple of hours. Regardless of symptoms, severe damage to the lining of the intestine will probably occur if the individual has coeliac disease. Nutrient absorption is compromised as a result of an immune system mediated attack on the villi in the small intestine and, as a result of the gluten induced damage, individuals are at an increased risk of infertility, osteoporosis, neurological problems, tooth enamel defects, cancer and other diseases.

Even with current market demand, gluten related disorders are vastly underdiagnosed. Coeliac Disease affects approximately 1 in 70 Australian individuals1 and 80% of those in society afflicted with this "chronic" condition remain undiagnosed.

Therefore, a little gluten every now and then is not okay.

1 sourced from The Coeliac Society of Australia (as of 2014, prevalence in 2012 was estimated to be 1 in 100)

Gluten impact on the Small Intestine in Coeliac Disease

Normal Intestine vs. Celiac Intestine (caused by immune response triggered by gluten in susceptible individuals)
Normal Intestine vs. Celiac Intestine (caused by immune response triggered by gluten in susceptible individuals) | Source

It is Illegal to label food items as gluten free if they contain gluten

From Here: http://www.comlaw.gov.au/Details/F2011C00537

16 Claims in relation to gluten content of food

(2) A claim to the effect that a food is gluten free must not be made in relation to a food unless the food contains –

(a) no detectable gluten; and

(b) no –

(i) oats or their products; or

(ii) cereals containing gluten that have been malted, or their products.

I am very disappointed with how this incident was handled and absolutely appalled and disgusted with the (lack of) service that Ursula Hall has provided for someone in the coeliac and gluten sensitive community (i.e. myself). I urge students with special dietary requirements and an interest in Accommodation at the ANU to reconsider this residence in choosing where to live.

I'm afraid that, if a hall that prides itself on honesty (as implied in the Hall Ethos "The Truth Shall Set You Free") can't tell the truth, I will do all but set them free with regard to this serious but neglected matter.

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    • profile image

      Suzie 4 years ago

      Hi,

      So sorry to hear about this. I'll be retweeting it in a few days for discussion on our #ausallergy Twitter chat on Tuesday night at 8:30 AEDT. Would be lovely if you could join us.

    • icmn91 profile image
      Author

      icmn91 4 years ago from Australia

      Thanks for your support. I have a Twitter account but almost never use the service. I'll try to join your #ausallergy group next week.

    • icmn91 profile image
      Author

      icmn91 4 years ago from Australia

      Thanks again for all your feedback (here and elsewhere). For your information I have published another hub which outlines the email that I sent to the Ursula Hall administrators and deputy head of hall on the 11th of October, 2012.

      https://hubpages.com/food/Ursula-Hall-Gluten-Free-...

    • icmn91 profile image
      Author

      icmn91 4 years ago from Australia

      I have received a response from the Head of Ursula Hall, which is available on this newer, more recent, hub: https://hubpages.com/food/Ursula-Hall-Gluten-Free-...

    • profile image

      Heather @ Stuffed Pepper 4 years ago

      I'm so sorry for your experience. This sounds terrible. It reminds me of my college days, but no one knew about gluten sensitivity back then. I'm so glad that you are working to make them more informed so that students who come after you will be able to eat safely. In the meantime, I wish you luck in pursuing your studies again,

    • Radcliff profile image

      Liz Davis 4 years ago from Hudson, FL

      It is so important that stories like your be told. Many are under the misconception that gluten-free diets are some fad that isn't necessary. They have no idea that cross-contamination is real, and it's actually quite difficult to have a totally gluten-free kitchen. I am sort of a conspiracy theorist, so I feel like as long as corporations like Kellogg's are making huge profits selling glutenous grains, the public will be kept in the dark unless people who know about the dangers of gluten exposure speak out about their knowledge and experiences. Thanks for this hub, and hang in there!

    • Turtlewoman profile image

      Kim Lam 4 years ago from California

      Thank you for sharing this article! Unfortunately, cross contamination with gluten happens so often and almost everywhere. We need dedicated people like you to spread the awareness. Great work...good luck and let me know if I can be of any help. Take care!

    • BlissfulWriter profile image

      BlissfulWriter 4 years ago

      For gluten sensitive individuals, trace amount of gluten does matter. Often chef and many restaurant staff do not know this. Sometime, we need to just need to cook our own foods to be sure.

      It depends on the level of sensitivity of a person. I once heard of someone having a sensitivities to the gluten in the hair spray used on another person in a salon.

    • justgrace1776 profile image

      justgrace1776 4 years ago

      I am going to share this with the people I wrote about on my hub. Thanks for sharing. How neglectful and deceiving of the university!

    • Sharicey profile image

      Sharice 4 years ago from Rhode Island

      I'm actually surprised that a university in which you pay a lot of money to go to would be so neglectful. That is a health hazard and your well being that they are neglecting not to mention the emotional impact of time spent not feeling well. Time spent not being able to study. I don't have celiac but I am gluten intolerant. I can understand how awful its feels to be accidentally "glutened" and I can't imagine being glutened on a regular basis while going to school! Insane that a school would be so irresponsible.

    • profile image

      myimaginaryfriend 4 years ago

      How do the other catered accommodations at ANU handle dietary requirements like Johns, Burgmann or even Bruce and do you know how they would compare to Ursies.

    • profile image

      Howard the Celeriac 4 years ago

      Wow I was lucky that I didn't get the disease until long after school and uni, but I can't imagine how hard it must have been to depend on a place to feed you only to be completely lied to.

      I worry more and more that the gluten free diet is being viewed as a fad diet and is not being taken seriously.

      I hope you get this resolved!

    • ThePrincessMC profile image

      Theresa Ford 4 years ago from RPB, Florida

      This is terrible and could have been avoided. Why can't people just be honest. I am sick of hearing, "a little bit won't hurt". Wow! I think you should set them free, besides, you did ask and they lied over and over.

    • CASE1WORKER profile image

      CASE1WORKER 4 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM

      What rotten service- I think in my day some 50 years ago it was easier- they just gave you a boiled egg or a lump of cheese and a dollop of mash with veg- not exciting but safe- I think the problem is that the symptoms creep up on you and when they really hit you are too darn weak to do anything about it. Throughout my life I have had deifferent levels of tolerance so hopefully this hyper sensitive period will pass and you will be able to tolerate the odd mistake. Just remember that bad temper and depression can also be a sympton so its often not you but what you have eaten.

    • icmn91 profile image
      Author

      icmn91 4 years ago from Australia

      ThePrincessMC, I'm quite fed up with it too. Not sure that I agree with your suggestion about "setting them free"; perhaps I read it wrong. In any case, I'll be setting myself free of it so that I can (hopefully) still make something of my life.

      CASE1WORKER, couldn't agree more. Properly accommodating a gluten free diet today can be very tricky. The neurological and autoimmune diseases caused by gluten are serious.

    • ThePrincessMC profile image

      Theresa Ford 4 years ago from RPB, Florida

      My comment about setting them free wasn't meant to free them of a responsibility. I meant to set them free with the truth about their negligence. They should be held responsible for misleading and misguiding. People's health is at stake.

    • profile image

      CJ 4 years ago

      I concur with the author. But you need to remember not everyone is university material. There are vocational schools, community colleges, and management training programs that can get you into a decent job for a decent pay so that if you like, you can try the college thing again later. I wish you all the best!

    • profile image

      Pam 4 years ago

      First, let me say I'm so sorry to hear about your negative experience at university. I did not go gluten-free until several years after university ("college" here in the States), so I can only imagine how difficult it was for you.

      In my experience, college dining halls are not very open to change or to catering to individual students' dietary needs. They say they do, of course, because they have to, but the staff have little nutritional training and are just "doing their jobs." Thus, the chef might know the potatoes are gluten-free, but not understand issues with cross-contamination from a shared fryer. In fact, many people are surprised when I explain the issues with shared fryers to them.

      In any event, the only way to change these organizations is through kind, yet assertive, education. You mentioned that you're a quiet type, and I am too. It's especially difficult for us quiet types to be assertive,yet it really is the only way to effect change. (And I know when you're not feeling like yourself due to gluten exposure it's even more difficult.)

      I'm guessing that when you spoke to the head chef, he didn't remember your comments because students make complaints every day. Unless he logged every single one, which he probably does not have time to do, he would be hard pressed to remember the specifics of each one. Additionally, if you are a quiet type, what felt like a big conversation to you might have felt like a single offhand comment to him. Or he might have been trying to save face with his employers when faced with your written complaint.

      Another way to go about it in the future would be to bring printed materials from a reliable source backing up your complaint. For example, with the beef and barley soup they claimed was gluten-free, I would keep it as simple as an article defining what grains contain gluten, and a written request that the staff no longer list the soup as gluten-free. A simple comment such as, "I'm sure this was an accident on your part" can go a long way in keeping the staff from feeling like they're being attacked. Even though you're feeling awful because of the food, and probably hungry too, once they realize you mean business but aren't out to harm them, they may work harder to get food for you. I would also keep a list of food you can eat, so you have it available when/if they ask you.

      Lastly, if you don't already, I would start cooking some meals for yourself - a lot can be accomplished with just a microwave and an electric kettle. That way, you will know a few things about how to prepare food you can eat,be able to eat safely regardless of catering options, and be better prepared when culinary staff ask you how to prepare gluten-free food.

      Again, it's awful that you had a bad experience, but ultimately you are the only one responsible for changing it going forward. Sorry if that sounds cheesy, but if there's one thing I learned from experience, it's that blaming others for your problems does nothing to fix them. Related to that, if the people who contributed to your difficulties feel like you're blaming it on them, it's the same way. Better to go about it tactfully and promote education of dietary restrictions instead of just complaining. I know it's hard, but each of us who eat gluten-free bear this responsibility, not only for ourselves, but for each other.

      Best of luck going forward.

    • profile image

      Doppelganger 4 years ago

      You should send a letter containing your concerns and subsequent grades to the head of the university along with the law of labeling and an article on the long term damage that can result from gluten ingestion. You should also ask for your tuition back or take legal action and sue for damages. Once properly informed, they then cannot claim ignorance and you may save someone else from this incredible injustice. The response you got from your dorm is disgraceful and highlights ignorance.

      I studied abroad before I was diagnosed and I'm so glad I didn't have to eat gluten free because from my memory the dining hall never had any allergy information available for the various foods. I'm actually convinced that my coeliac was triggered while I was living there and eating pasta and pizza every day because of the lack of options. Some universities require students to purchase a meal plan if they are living in dorms. I was required to buy a plan for either 7, 12 or unlimited meals a week and you have to use those meal swipes at the dining hall. We had one kitchen for my whole dorm (about 200 people) and if you've had to spend all that money on a meal plan because its required then why would you want to spend even more money on buying your own food? I definitely couldn't have afforded it at all.

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 4 years ago from California

      My condolences on being G.F. Food allergies are a pain. I have a cold because I ate dairy one day suspecting the feta was not goats milk and accidentally ate it two more days.

      Sometimes it is so frustrating not to eat bread and butter. Have you noticed that more and more servers are wise about GF and DF?

      Nice to meet you.

    • profile image

      Jasmine 4 years ago

      Jesus Christ. Shame on Ursies for mislabelling their food but shame on you for not moving out.

    • icmn91 profile image
      Author

      icmn91 4 years ago from Australia

      It's very hard to do much at all, let alone move out, when you're sick.

    • profile image

      themightybutterfree 4 years ago

      Not wanting to be a stick in the mud but do you have any hard evidence or documentation to back up your claims? Presumably you aren't the only gluten intolerant person who has ever lived at Ursula Hall (or Bruce Hall which has the same catering service). Surely they would also be experiencing the same or similar problems as you did if this problem is as bad as you have claimed.

      While you have my sympathies for performing poorly at university and the effects that wiuld have had on your life, as as science student I can't help but note that all you have provided are anecdotes. And the plural of anecdotes is not data. As the person making claims, the burden of proof lies with you.

      I also find it odd that you don't appear to have taken any sort of legal action, either inside ANU avenues or through exterior ones. Surely if the catering at Ursula Hall was the singular cause of your poor university performance, you would be able to prove it and get it changed so you can continue your studies and get on with your life.

      Even something as simple as showing that all the gluten intolerant students have been having problems would certainly be enough to warrant an investigation by the ANU. Have you looked into this at all?

    • profile image

      kettle 4 years ago

      Seriously dude, I decided not to ignore this since you tried to advertise your blog at every lil chance. I'm gonna say now my post will not be as refined as the one above.

      First thing that came to my mind, why didn't you move out? Apparently your case is abnormally serious if this is what caused you to be so sick that you fail every course. You can easily get into Fenner/Unilodge or can try out B&G and cook whatever you want, if your case is genuine I can't see why they will reject you (I know ppl getting rooms they wanted just simply because their neighbours were too noisy). Instead you decided to stay, get sick while blaming the food.

      Oh you're too sick to move? You have all the energy to go to class (assuming you do), go home for Easter break, winter break, summer break or whatever break it is, argue with chefs, writing lots of email, do all these gluten free research; but you can't make a one-time sacrifice and move to other self-catered halls just nearby? I'm just totally speechless.

      OK, now let's talk about Ursula's food standard. Someone pointed it out, there must be other gluten-free residents in Ursula as well. Actually there are, because I know it, and I know some very serious ones as well. But if the food is really as bad as you described, wouldn't the same happened to them and shit got serious? Ursula chefs do not own the kitchen, if they want they can always just cook one pathetic simple gluten-free dish every meal and get done with it, they do not need to play all these tricks, putting their jobs and futures on the risk. Oh and they do serve gluten-free bread and pasta (they ordered it, they didn't make it!), so how are you sure they weren't serving gluten-free couscous? (It exists. GOOGLE!)

      Of course, I do not deny that people may make blunders. Did you ask them about the barley? From all we know, you only talked on and on about couscous. Maybe they did make a mistake on the barley and you could have corrected them. Did you?

      All I see from this are baseless accusations. You provided so few examples for years of residing there, and you never took any legal actions for investigations, in the end just blame them for your poor results. Let me be honest, if all these were true, I'm not surprised at all that you failed your subjects given your actions and ways of thinking, even at your top health.

    • anahita-mahdi profile image

      Anahita 4 years ago from Toronto

      This line, "It really depends, that very little bit of gluten that gets through isn't really going to hurt!" really hit home. I get it ALL THE TIME. Just yesterday someone said, "Are a few bread crumbs REALLY going to make a difference?" with so much sarcasm and hatefulness that all I could muster was a resounding, "YES." I find that because gluten-free living is trendy (at least it's trendy in North America), a lot of people don't take the allergy seriously. I have to dance around the word "gluten" and just stick with, "I'm very allergic to wheat, rye and barley," to have my allergy taken at face value. It bothers me because I feel it's the only allergy to be shrugged off.

      Thank you for your hubs! You're standing up on behalf of all of us who have to defend our right to be healthy.

    • Kellie S Drake profile image

      Kellie Drake 4 years ago from Oregon

      I am so sorry you encountered such an ignorant chef. You'd think a college of that degree would hire competent staff. Good for you for starting this blog and bringing it to the forefront. Hopefully things have changed and if not, shame on them.

    • profile image

      Maria 4 years ago

      You've clearly had a terrible experience and unfortunately encountered some rather ill educated people along the way. Sadly I am sure it's not unusual. Educating those in all aspects of the food industry is definitely the way ahead. Things are improving very quickly along those lines here in the UK, have you noticed an improvement in OZ? I hope life has improved for you in every respect.

    • icmn91 profile image
      Author

      icmn91 4 years ago from Australia

      Yes, it's been much better for me since I left ANU last year. Thanks Maria.

    • profile image

      Thomas Roberts 4 years ago

      Look, I don't doubt that there are people who genuinely suffer from Celiac disease. I really don’t think you fall under that umbrella. So you avoided the catered food and lived off lollies? Couldn't you have used that money to buy actual "gluten-free" food? Fruit? Nuts? Yogurt? All much cheaper than lollies and much more substantial than sugar. You got sick because you most likely spent the whole year living on wiz-fizz and artificial colouring. Your problem is that that you don't understand nutrition. You just want attention. Stop posting this rubbish everywhere, you're making genuine Celiac sufferers look bad.

    • profile image

      Anthony Keyes 4 years ago

      My sympathies for your condition, I have seen firsthand how serious exposure to gluten can be for any individual afflicted with celiac. However, I have to agree with many of the comments here pointing to the largely anecdotal content of your article. Surely if you suspected that the catered meals were mislabeled and causing your illness, you would have taken steps to rectify this; whether it be self catering, or a written complaint to the residence. Not doing so seems counter-intuitive, and I struggle to fathom why you would have instead chosen to continue to expose yourself to harm. As a university student myself I do not accept that doing either was beyond your power, considering how many student I know (myself included) who are able to cater for themselves whilst undertaking an intensive degree AND working part-time to support themselves. Not to mention writing an email.

      As well, at any point did you appeal to your academic advisor (or other such entity) on the issue of your grades? Circumstances arising from a medical concern are nearly always dealt with adequately, be it through a granting of special consideration or the offer of a leave of absence. Again, evidence (or lack thereof to the contrary) of not doing so is highly suspect, and raises question as to whether Ursula Hall's kitchen is entirely to blame for your poor results.

      Again, I sympathise if it indeed true that Ursula Hall misrepresented their meals so grossly. However the lack of compelling evidence to this, along with some dubitable behaviour on your part, leaves me unconvinced that this was the sole factor on your exclusion from ANU.

    • profile image

      Ajam 3 years ago

      Are you a properly diagnosed celiac or have you self-diagnosed?

    • icmn91 profile image
      Author

      icmn91 3 years ago from Australia

      I was diagnosed as requiring a gluten free diet.

      Just to clear things up, I was not excluded from the ANU.

    • profile image

      The Bear 3 years ago

      Why did you return for five semesters if you encountered these problems. It is puzzling that you have identified the seriousness of this issue but neglected to take actions which reflected this seriousness i.e. raise your concerns with the Head of Hall, Vice Chancellor or even move to one of the close by adjacent University residence. I appreciate your condition but am disappointed in your detailed article and your lack of accountability and responsibility for your poor academic performance over 5 semesters.

      Wishing you all the best with your ongoing studies, future endeavours and managing your condition.

    • icmn91 profile image
      Author

      icmn91 3 years ago from Australia

      Bear, my knowledge and understanding of coeliac disease was fairly limited for a long time. In the end, it's the learning experience that counts. :)

    • profile image

      The Bear 3 years ago

      Dear icmn91

      Thank you for your response. I once met a Glutten intolerant sufferer so understand how you feel.

      Your response was somewhat perplexing in that you say "in the end its the learning experience that counts". If this were the case you would not have posted a slanderous article which makes you the victim of 5 semesters of terrible academic performance rather than accepting your own responsibility for them.

      I wonder if a moment of reflection might allow you to see things for what they really are and perhaps refute the accusations and stop the "blame game".

      As I said, I once met a Glutten intolerant person so understand. Would changing degrees perhaps improve your ongoing poor academic performance?

      I wish you every success in finding the real answers within.

      Cheers

    • profile image

      you're a moron 3 years ago

      You're a ranting idiot with extremely poor understanding of coeliac disease, small amounts or trace amounts of gluten ingested accidentally does NOT cause several weeks of nutrient malabsorption as you would try to make people believe. I am a coeliac and have spoken to my gastroenterologist about this many times as I am sensitive to cross-contamination. You're a fucking dickhead who's pissed off about being coeliac & is ranting and blaming others like a nut on the web, get a grip and deal with it.

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