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Terrible Gluten Free Food Experience at Ursula Hall, The Australian National University (ANU)
Main Wing, Ursula Hall
Map of The ANU
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 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
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 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 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
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 about 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.