To know me is to know I love travelling by train, specifically VIA. It's one of those "proud-to-be-Canadian" things. I've been travelling on VIA for about 15 years and I've always looked forward to my trips. For every bad experience (screaming children, chatty university kids who don't use headphones for their music and chatty people on mobile phones), I have at least three good experiences.
So, it is no wonder that I was looking forward to my first Business Class trip on January 2nd. I got to the station earlier than usual just to hang out in the Panorama Lounge. Totally worth it. And, while I ordered the strict vegetarian meal (a.k.a. vegan) for my on-board meal, I knew there was a chance that I might not be able to eat it since nuts could be involved. VIA states on their website: "VIA cannot guarantee that its meals are free of all products that could cause allergies."
It was with absolute glee that I found out I could eat the meal since there were no nuts. The attendant was kind enough to get my permission to check the meal itself before she served it. The nature of my allergy to selected nuts is such that I have to worry about certain nuts in food more than cross-contamination. I certainly wouldn't recommend this course of action for anyone else.
So, in the end, the entree itself was not the problem - in terms of allergies. Sadly, it wasn't at all appetizing. I couldn't bear to finish what only looked like a delicious rice and chickpea dish. What did shock me was what was included as part of the meal - CoffeeMate and Canola Harvest margarine. While I know first hand that CoffeeMate has dairy (that was my first sign that my dairy allergy was worsening way back when and it says it contains dairy on the package), I could only suspect that Canola Harvest margarine likely contained whey as most margarines do. I only know of a few exceptions amongst typically non-vegan brand names - Fleischmann's and Becel Vegan. A quick email to the company confirmed that there is whey (and soy) in the margarine. So, a meal that is considered vegan, which is of concern to those with allergies and ethical considerations, includes items which contain milk.
Of course, I did what any food allergy blogger would do, I emailed VIA next. I've submitted complaints and praise on a couple of previous occasions and I've always been more than pleased with their response. Not so in this case.
I received a very generic form letter, complete with spelling errors and, quite humorously, it was even addressed to Mr. Tristan Joseph, even though my gender was clearly chosen in the email form I sent them. There was no mention of my specific complaint. I received an apology and a promise that it would be sent to the relevant manager.
An apology is appreciated, but it's not what I want to see happen. What I proposed and what I would like to see is the following:
1. Do not include items with dairy or egg in the strict vegetarian meal. If a special meal is not supposed to contain certain food items/ingredients, do due diligence and ensure all products meet those criteria.
2. Include ingredient listings for food items like bread, chocolate, margarine and salad dressing (which do not come with ingredients) on-line and on-board. I will happily go without if it contains my allergies, but it would be a small and welcome change.
3. Basic food allergy training for attendants who deal with meals. Lactose intolerance is not a dairy allergy, but I cannot expect an attendant to know that if that attendant hasn't been given the tools or knowledge. This would help them from making claims out of ignorance which has happened in restaurants on too many occasions.
In short, if you are a vegan or have a food allergy and are travelling in VIA Business Class, be prepared to not eat parts of the meal. Since you can't walk out the way you would in a restaurant you didn't trust, politely and kindly tell the attendant why the meal isn't safe for you. Remember that they have nothing to do with the preparation which is all done off-site. Send an email to VIA via their Contact Us page. Plus, always have some allergy-friendly snacks as a backup.
NOTE: Somehow I cut this part out, but it's worth including. Most VIA snacks which could potentially contain peanuts (pretzels, snack mixes) seem to be peanut-free. On that note, I'm not advocating for any food bans on-board. Business Class is predominantly booked by adults who have a greater ability to analyze potentially allergic situations than children.
UPDATE 05Dec12 - @VIA_Rail read this post and replied within 24 hours. I have to say their Twitter team is always on the ball. Obviously, they're not in a position to make promises or changes, but I hope that the management teams in charge of meal services and service delivery (as noted in @VIA_Rails' tweet) do take this seriously.