Within seconds of taking one bite of a vegan pulled pork taco at Vegandale Brewery, Vittoria Rabito knew something was not right. Within a minute, her heart rate increased and her lips began to tingle. Within five minutes, she was having trouble breathing and went to the bathroom to administer her EpiPen. Within 10 minutes, she was taken in an ambulance and rushed to the hospital.
Since she was born, Rabito has had a severe allergy to dairy. This occurrence at Vegandale Brewery—which claims to be Toronto’s only vegan brewery and restaurant and boasts the slogan “morality on tap”—was the most severe reaction she has ever had and was only the second time she has ever had to use her EpiPen.
“I remember my body started shaking within seconds of taking a bite and it didn’t stop until an hour or two into being into the hospital,” Rabito told VICE. “When you go to a vegan restaurant and you have a dairy allergy, you’re hoping that they take [cross-contamination] seriously and that they are dairy-free. So that night I thought I was going crazy.”
In a statement to VICE, Hellenic Vincent De Paul, the owner of 5700 Inc., the company behind Vegandale Brewery, said that while the company takes “food safety seriously and [works] every day to not only meet, but exceed stringent industry standards” but that “some of [their] suppliers may use animal-based ingredients in their production facilities when making other products.” The company declined to give VICE an interview. However, a manager at the brewery later told VICE the situation was not handled in an acceptable manner.
Before eating, Rabito notified her server of her severe allergy, who assured her that all of their items are vegan and therefore dairy-free. Though, they did not rule out the possibility of cross-contamination at a factory level, which weeks later was deemed the source of her reaction.
More than two weeks after the incident, which took place on November 9, Vegandale Brewery confirmed to Rabito that the “vegan seasoning” did not live up to its name. The company has yet to provide Rabito with the exact ingredients in the “vegan seasoning” but said in an email to her that the “product may contain traces of milk” and that the restaurant was not aware of the possible hazard due to the seasoning arriving in unlabelled packaging.
Shortly after the incident, a manager from Vegandale Brewery invited Rabito and her father back to a complimentary meal at one of Vegandale’s other restaurants. Charlie Rabito, Vittoria’s father, says the response from Vegandale’s general manager at the time was “absolutely absurd.” VICE has learned that the general manager no longer works for the company.
“They don’t have a clue as to what could have happened to Vittoria,” he said. “We could have been dealing with Vittoria’s funeral had she not acted quickly in the way that she did.”
The incident is the latest bit of bad press for Toronto’s burgeoning vegan empire—the company plans to have seven stores by the end of 2018. Vegandale was the target of protest earlier this year, as about 250 people in Parkdale came out against their vegan interlopers for both gentrifying and moralizing the neighbourhood.
For their part in the latest incident, Vegandale is accepting responsibility,
“How this situation was dealt with was unacceptable,” Elliot Johnson, who is the kitchen manager at Vegandale Brewery, told VICE. In response to the incident, Johnson says the restaurant has already started seeking out a fully vegan supplier in replace of the vegetarian supplier they still currently use. But the ingredients in the vegan pulled pork tacos that caused Rabito’s allergic reaction have not changed. However, the menu has been updated to “provide a more fulsome allergen notice” which includes the risk of production level cross-contamination.
A representative from Toronto Public Health told VICE that vegan restaurants have no legal authority to disclose if their products come in contact with dairy or eggs since there are “no specific requirements in the Food Premises Regulation for vegan restaurants” in terms of cross-contamination.
Even though advocacy groups like Food Allergy Canada “ask restaurants to disclose information around ingredients and the potential for cross-contamination,” a representative told VICE that there are no specific requirements for restaurants to have any type of allergen management in place regardless if the restaurant is vegan or non-vegan.
But Rabito’s father Charlie doesn’t think that’s acceptable.
“As a vegan restaurant, if you’re not able to fulfill that everything is dairy-free there should be some disclosure that they are not able to guarantee that the food is free of animal products,” he said. “From a moral perspective that would be the right thing to do.”
A vegan diet is widely known to be free of all animal products such as milk, eggs, meat, fish and gelatin, but some vegans find their personal ethical balance at different points. While some vegans may even consider honey vegan-friendly, some have argued that even avocados are not vegan due to their impact on the environment.
Even within the realm “vegans” come various limitations, a hierarchy if you will, on how “vegan” someone is. Wearing leather or using products that test on animals is enough for some vegans to lessen or even discredit vegan status of others. For some, veganism is much more than a plant-based diet one adopts for personal reasons — it can signify a religious lifestyle committed to raising awareness of animal liberation.
As for Vegandale (owned by the investment company 5700 Inc.), their company ethos is militant in their approach to veganism; their workers are banned from bringing non-vegan lunches or wearing animal-derived clothing such as leather or fur. Vegandale Brewery, specifically, is illuminated with fluorescent signs and a ‘V’ sculpture both adorned with quotes promoting the animal liberation movement.
Although Rabito is not vegan, she marked vegan restaurants as a “safe place” for her strict dietary restrictions since they market themselves as free of all animal products including dairy.
“We knew originally that ethically minded vegans were certainly our core customer base but what we failed to realize was how important we could be to the community of those with food allergies,” a Vegandale manager said to Rabito in an email, seen by VICE.
If a vegan company is so intensely concerned about the clothing their employees wear to work, Rabito believes it’s hypocritical to not put the same significance on themselves for what they put on their customers’ plates.
“If you’re calling yourself a vegan restaurant, there is an assumption that the restaurant has done all of their due diligence with sourcing their product from the manufactures that their products are vegan,” said Rabito.
“If they can’t do that, they should not be calling themselves vegan.”
Follow Nathan Sing on Twitter.