Soon after Vittoria Rabito shared with VICE that she was served a dish from a vegan restaurant that was cross-contaminated with dairy, sending her to the hospital because of a severe allergy, she learned her experience was not an isolated incident.
After Rabito came forward with what she said was a “hypocrisy” for Vegandale Brewery to serve her a dish containing unintentional traces of animal products, the restaurant, owned by the company 5700 Inc., issued a formal apology on social media saying they are “sorry for what happened” to her and are taking the necessary steps to ensure an incident like hers never happens again.
Since the article was published, Rabito has received multiple messages from people with severe allergies similar to hers who have also had reactions when eating at Vegandale restaurants.
“When I read the article, I had to reach out to her so she knew that she was not alone and someone else has been through this,” said Jenna Tso. She was born with an anaphylactic allergy to dairy similar to Rabito’s. Although she eats a predominantly plant-based diet, she does not consider herself a vegan. After eating a vegan pulled pork sandwich at Doomies (which is now part of Vegandale Brewery) in October 2017, she had an allergic reaction that worsened after leaving the restaurant which later put her to the hospital overnight.
Despite her preceding incident, Tso gave the company a second shot and recently went back to Vegandale Brewery to try vegan ice cream at Not Your Mother, where she says she had another reaction. ”A few bites in my tongue was tingling and I stopped eating it. I had stomach issues the entire night.”
Vegandale parent company 5700 Inc told VICE it was not aware of other serious allergic reactions at its restaurants. However, VICE has viewed emails between Tso and a chef at Doomie's that shows they were aware of a complaint.
"While our kitchen contains nuts, seeds, gluten and soy, we do not use animal products in any of our cuisine. However, similar to many vegan products, some of our suppliers may use animal-based ingredients in their production facilities when making other products. Out of an abundance of caution and care for our customers with specific allergy concerns, we have updated our menus across all of our locations to include a notice so that we may alert consumers of potential allergens," the company told VICE Friday.
Though for something to be considered “vegan-friendly” means to be free of all animal products, the Vegan Society states on their website that “products suitable for vegans may not be suitable for people with allergies” since “vegans avoid exploitation of non-human animals, whereas people with allergies need products that do not contain the allergens that affect them.” For some vegans, as long as they didn’t intentionally eat a trace amount of animal products, it is admissible to do so.
Although Toronto Public Health told VICE there is no legal obligation for vegan restaurants to disclose whether their food may come in contact with animal products, Tso says there remains an ethical dilemma since restaurants like Vegandale Brewery market themselves free of animal products.
Many products that are certified “vegan-friendly” or plant-based are manufactured in facilities that also process animal products such as milk and eggs. Contrary to what Tso and Rabito assumed, a product that is certified “vegan” may not be completely free of traces of animal products. This does not infringe on the values of some who eat a plant-based diet or live a vegan lifestyle, but proper disclosure of possible cross-contamination off or on-site is important, and possibly life-dependent, for people with allergies as severe as Tso and Rabito’s. Vegandale Brewery has since added a warning to the bottom of their menu.
In response to Rabito coming forward with her story, some members of the Toronto Vegans Facebook page suggested she did not deserve compassion since not being vegan she “pays for animals to have their throats slit” by purchasing and eating animal products and therefore does not deserve sympathy from their community.
Since it was created in 2013, the Toronto Vegans Facebook page has garnered more than 13,000 members—I am one of them. I’ve eaten a plant-based diet for almost four years and joined the group when I moved to Toronto to find the best vegan food in the city, but soon realized that joining the group came with a lot more than finding the best vegan burger in town. While I’ve read many educational posts in the group advocating against the exploitations of animals, I have also witnessed the division within the vegan community and the varying approaches to their activism.
”The majority of the people in Toronto Vegans that are active in the group are awful people,” Andrea Frenke told VICE, a vegan activist and member of Toronto Vegans. When Frenke adopted a vegan lifestyle six years ago, she says she was “militant,” “hateful” and “misanthropic” with her approach to her activism. She joined the group at the beginning of becoming vegan but left the group for almost four years because “it wasn’t challenging [her] to be a better person and a better advocate for animals.”
Still, members came to her defence, and called the antipathy towards Rabito’s suffering from some members as “disgusting.” One member wrote: “People with allergies should not have to suffer the consequences of almost dying because they trust the word vegan on their restaurant sign. Put yourself in that person's place. She almost died for trusting the restaurant. Even the restaurant is admitted to being incorrect and here we have people defending them still just because?”
In the past, when Frenke called out radical forms of vegan activism and reacted similarly to that member, she says she received private messages from other vegans criticizing her own activism, telling her to go “drink bleach” and even wishing death upon her next child.
”If people are met with this angry mob of judgmental, anti-intersectional people, then they are not going to want to go vegan,” said Frenke. “It worries me as someone that does strongly believe in veganism and in growing the movement.”
Vegans advocate for animal liberation and against the exploitation of animals by asking people to look inside themselves and change their behaviours to meet their morality. Yet, both Frenke and I have both witnessed the irony in this with some vegans being reluctant to look inside themselves and change their own behaviours towards humans.
Adopting a plant-based diet is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the Earth, and choosing menu items that are vegan encourages restaurants to put more plant-based options on the menu. Whether you eat a strict plant-based diet or not, eating a single plant-based meal is one less animal on someone's plate. But for some vegans, just as they view eating a minimal amount of animal products, as long as the intention isn’t there, choosing a vegan pulled pork over the real deal isn’t sufficient.
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