Feeling Cross about Cross Contamination

Costa, we need to talk.

The other day, I was at one of your lovely cafes, looking for a pre-shopping pick-me-up. But this wasn’t just a regular Costa trip. No, this was a mission. However, this mission did not go entirely according to plan.

Do you ever have those days where you slowly develop a mild obsession over a particular food item? You think to yourself “I work hard all week. I am entitled to… no, I DESERVE to treat myself with an Orange Hot Chocolate.” You dream about it on the bus, imagining all the chocolatey, orangey goodness that will be yours in just a matter of minutes. You wait in line, smelling all the delightful coffee shop smells and prepare your order in your head: “I’ll have a soya orange hot chocolate with no whip, and no chocolate sprinkling dust… nothing with dairy please!”. You confidently strut up to the counter and recite your order to the barista. You smile in anticipation. Your prize is almost in hand. But suddenly, he delivers three little words that put your chocolatey dreams to a grinding halt:

“That’s got dairy.”.

I was confused. I had read numerous posts on a trusted ‘vegan products’ sharing Facebook group celebrating the fact that we could enjoy Costa’s hot chocolates this year, as they were suitable for vegans. I was sure of it. I asked the barista if he could double check for me, and after asking the manager and looking at the packaging for the hot chocolate mix, he confirmed that it was not vegan. Dejected and deprived of my coveted hot chocolate, I sat down at the table empty handed and furiously scrolled through the Facebook group as my friend sipped her latte. It had to be on here somewhere. I knew I had read that Costa had vegan hot chocolate. I decided to post myself on the group page, asking for some guidance. I was amazed how quickly the replies started rolling in. Some group members were a bit unsure as well — as the Costa allergens list states that the hot chocolate mix is not suitable for vegans, adding yet ANOTHER layer of confusion!

Luckily, one member came through with an email from the Costa customer service team. The email said “Our hot chocolate mixes do not contain any ingredients of animal origin. However, there is a potential risk for cross contamination at the point of manufacture”.

I get it. Cross contamination can be a big issue for people suffering from food allergies or who want to be extremely strict about their veganism. But for me? I say life is too short to worry about ‘may contain traces of’, since I am not going to swell up and die if I accidentally consume a bit of dairy. However, this is one of the big reasons why it seems like finding vegan-friendly products is more difficult than it should be.

Of course companies are going to err on the side of caution in the case of allergens. But there should be a quicker and easier way to differentiate between ‘may contain’ and ‘actually contains’ dairy or egg products. For instance, taking a quick glance at Costa’s allergen table — you could quickly come to the conclusion that a soy hot chocolate is not suitable for vegans (see the big orange NO). But if you look further down the rows, you can see that milk is not actually present, as the email said. The yellow C stands for ‘Cross Contamination risk’. Sure enough, I marched back up to the counter and very politely asked again for my hot chocolate. I also showed him the email on my phone from Costa Customer Service so that perhaps he would be a bit better equipped to deal with this issue if it came up again.


Vegan.Org states:

” By ingredients, Certified Vegan products are dairy-free/non-dairy, egg-free, and vegan. However, for those with food allergies, please check with the company on their manufacturing processes for all varieties if potential allergen cross-contamination is an issue for you. Many companies that make vegan products are using shared machinery.” By that standard, all of the drinks would still be ‘Certified Vegan’, even with those little yellow ‘C’s.

So what does this all mean for those of us who won’t die if we drink milk but would just rather it kindly stay out of our lives and leave us alone?  Well, I do understand the barista’s confusion. If it’s confusing for us, the people who are actively seeking out vegan products and constantly scanning ingredients — then no wonder it’s confusing to a barista, who just wants me to order my damn drink already. This means that unfortunately, we do need to do a bit of research before ordering.  Yes, it is a bit sad that even the manager didn’t seem to understand the difference between a cross-contamination risk and a legitimately non-vegan product. Especially as he specifically stated that the mix ‘had milk in it’, which was not actually true as it turned out.

Do I think that restaurants should train their staff to be more knowledgeable about what’s in the food they are serving? Yes, but I also acknowledge that eating vegan is a choice — I have chosen to devote my energy and time to finding out what I can and can’t eat, and I don’t expect the baristas at Costa to care about it as much as I do.

Yes, it’s annoying that we can’t always just order food without confusion. But all it takes sometimes is a little bit of research, and a healthy dose of questioning what you’ve been told. Joining a vegan community online can be really helpful too, as chances are, there is already someone out there that has looked into whatever you’re unsure about!  So get out there, do your research, and drink those delicious, chocolatey drinks, friends!


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