Many workers in the food industry experiencing parosmia — or a long-term distorted sense of smell — find their lives and livelihoods disrupted. And they have trouble accessing help.
This story was originally published on Civil Eats.
Anaïs Saint-André Loughran remembers every cheese she’s ever tasted. The owner of Chantal’s Cheese Shop in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, recalls that when she decided she wanted to be a cheesemonger — at age 4 — “all the doors of my memories were tied to cheese, and where and how I tasted it.”
So when Loughran lost her sense of smell after she contracted COVID in March 2020, she was devastated. On the second day, she says, “I woke up, I tried to eat something, and it felt like I was eating nothing.” Since then, her career has been irrevocably changed.
Many food professionals have shared their stories about how COVID impacted their sense of taste and smell. New York Times restaurant critic Tejal Rao, food and wine writer Lisa Denning, and Arden Wine Bar owner and sommelier Kelsey Glasser all also experienced temporary bouts with loss of smell and taste. But there are others, like Loughran, who are experiencing a longer-term distorted experience of smell called parosmia, a common symptom of long COVID.
“I realized I had parosmia by drinking rotten milk without knowing,” says Loughran.
At first, she recalls, “I could barely eat food. Everything tasted like sewage.” Now, three years later, she says her sense of smell and taste has returned, but it’s completely different than before. “I didn’t get to try the cheese in my shop for a very long time. I had to go through hating everything I had loved, and also liking things I used to hate.” She worked at eating things that now tasted rotten a little bit at time to get used to it and to relearn the new tastes. “Onions were horrible. Still today, raw onions make my stomach jump,” says Loughran.
Before Loughran got sick, she could easily give recommendations for cheese pairings or substitutions. Then, once she began living with long COVID, none of the flavor matched what she had previously known. “Everything came crashing down,” she says.
Cheese is directly tied to Loughran’s earliest memories of her childhood in France. And the work she does is closely tied to her identity, as is the work of many other food professionals who rely on their senses. When her sense of smell and taste changed, everything else had to change too.
Loughran is just one of many people in the food industry who are suffering from long-haul sensory loss that affects her professional life. Holly Fann is a food writer, dining critic, and chef based in St. Louis. She contracted COVID for the first time in October 2021 and her sense of smell and taste have yet to return.
“I was a dining critic at that time and had a regular column,” says Fann. “Everything I do is freelance. There were no resources for me. I contacted the Freelancers Union, and they told me, ‘Maybe there’ll be resources someday, but there aren’t any now.’”
When trying to get support from doctors, she said, “It took six months to get my first appointment,” but there was no cure. “They tell you the best thing to do is to take time off and rest. The best treatment is weeks of incredibly reduced activity — but for anyone who works freelance or with food, you can’t take that time off.”
To help with her loss, Fann has joined a support group for people with long COVID.
“It’s amazing how many other people had the same odd symptoms,” she says, referring to the support group, “but I noticed that there were no people from the hospitality industry.” And while many of the members spoke of chronic pain and other systemic health issues, she was the only one there specifically to talk about her experience with parosmia.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines long COVID very broadly as a “range of ongoing health problems,” it’s typically associated with symptoms lasting more than four weeks: brain fog, lightheadedness, sleeping problems, depression and anxiety, and myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) or “chronic fatigue syndrome,” to name a few. Aside from neurological symptoms, it can also trigger health conditions including heart disease, diabetes, and kidney disease.
Last summer, a CDC analysis found that more than 40 percent of adults in the United States had reported having COVID in the past, and nearly one in five of those reported at least one lingering post-infection symptom that is seriously affecting their daily life. In recent CDC surveys, 14 percent of respondents say they have experienced some form of long COVID. As of August, an estimated 2 to 4 million of those people were out of work due to their ongoing symptoms.
Dr. Nancy Rawson, a scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, shared the science behind parosmia in an interview with KCRW, describing parosmia as an incorrect aroma experience. “It actually happens quite commonly in people that are recovering their sense of smell following having lost it completely from COVID,” she added. The olfactory system, which controls the mechanisms behind our sense of smell, doesn’t recover equally across all of the nerve pathways that detect thousands of different chemicals.
“Some nerves may be regenerating sooner than others,” she continued. “In order to get the full impact of a coffee aroma, for example, you need to be able to detect many different chemicals in a particular proportion in the way that the brain interprets that as coffee. But if you’re only now able to detect a few of those … they don’t smell anything like what you think the coffee should smell like.”
Smell is directly tied to taste, through a retronasal pathway that creates nuances of flavor, and without that, we lose the ability to identify food. This is especially detrimental to food workers experiencing parosmia and anosmia. According to an article in the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal), parosmia can turn previous sources of joy into causes of distress, as well as depression, anxiety, loss of appetite, and malnourishment, and many patients feeling trivialized by their healthcare providers when seeking help for these experiences.
Jameeale Arzeno is a chef based in New York City who contracted COVID in July 2020 and experienced a radically reduced sense of taste and smell within a few days. “My taste was diminished to salty, sweet, spicy, and sour. I could not discern specific flavors,” she said. After 28 days, she says she could only smell “sulfur and a metallic bergamot.”
Arzeno was devastated; she felt like she couldn’t trust her senses in the kitchen, and she had to stop taking private clients. “I didn’t feel I could fulfill my commitment to the quality of work I had delivered in the past,” she says.
Loughran and Fann have also worried about their credibility.
Loughran opted to restructure her entire business. “I had to hire more people. My dream to be behind the counter talking with folks about cheese and tasting with them for the rest of my life has changed,” she says. “I had many months of crying. I have imposter syndrome because I now have no confidence in myself.”
Fann recalls encountering a moral dilemma with her work. “Ethically, I was torn between letting people know [my sense of taste and smell was diminished] and worrying that my integrity would be questioned if I did.” She ended up having to table her food column until she was recovered, and losing out on regular writing gigs, which relied on her ability to write criticism.
Fann shifted to write about other topics, such as her experience with ADHD, in order to get by. “Before becoming a food writer, I was a chef for 20 years,” she says. “My way of communicating has always been through food. When you have a convoluted sense of what your baseline is, it throws off your sense of self and makes you question everything.”
As a chef, Arzeno also relies heavily on her memory. She started cooking only dishes she had cooked for years, and no longer trusts herself to try or develop new ones. She has kept her experience of parosmia to herself: “I was ashamed, and for a long time I was trying to hide it,” she says.
Numerous clinics around the country are focused on helping patients manage and recover from long COVID through specified treatment and support. And yet there is no definitive treatment for COVID-induced parosmia or olfactory dysfunction. For instance, Fann was treated at the innovative Washington University Long COVID Care program, but she didn’t regain her sense of taste or smell.
Some patients find olfactory retraining to be helpful, and it’s something Loughran has committed herself to practicing by actively sniffing the same scents every day. “With time, I will be able to master a bigger flavor profile, I think,” she says.
For people in the food industry without health insurance, the effects of parosmia can be especially challenging. “There [is no] compensation offered for anyone in this situation. I wish there was free treatment,” says Arzeno. “Or that something was offered to those affected by long COVID.”
The Biden-Harris administration announced more resources to support individuals with long COVID in July 2021, with a website that workers can visit to understand their rights. There is also now language that exists at part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protecting workers with symptoms of long COVID, such as fatigue, in the workplace. But these new guidelines don’t mention anosmia or parosmia, and there is no specific language or delineation for food workers who need their sense of smell and taste.
When reached via the notoriously flooded ADA information line, an unnamed ADA professional spoke about the lack of language around this issue, saying that “there is no concrete answer. If it affects their ability to do their job, [food professionals experiencing parosmia] may be able to get reasonable accommodation from their employment.”
But for some workers with parosmia who decide to apply for support, the long waits for disability assistance have ended in denial. While long COVID patients who can still work may ask their employers for accommodations, such as a space to rest or a more flexible schedule, chefs or food writers who rely on their senses may not find it easy to access such accommodations.
And while life has kept moving, and many COVID protections have been relaxed, support groups and advocacy organizations, such as Body Politic, are still working to support long COVID patients while educating the public about their experiences.
Even with these challenges and the overall lack of support, Loughran — who is nearly three years into the shift — says there have been positive moments as well. “In the long term, I’m taking it as a positive,” she adds. “Because I have no nostalgia and no memories about food tied to scent, I now try everything that comes my way.”
• For Some Food Professionals, COVID Has Cast a Long Shadow on Their Senses [Civil Eats]