Glove it or leave it?

Chefs have a love/hate relationship with gloves: No one wants his name associated with foodborne illness but many question how effective gloves are in food safety.

gloves trash can

When they passed a law requiring gloves to be worn by anyone handling ready-to-eat (RTE) food, politicians didn’t expect much, if any, fallout. After all, California was actually late to the party—40 other states and countless smaller jurisdictions already had similar laws on their books. The California Restaurant Association had even withdrawn its objections to the bill, preferring to bow to the inevitable.

In fact, quite the opposite occurred. Chefs, bartenders and restaurateurs railed vehemently against the new law. One blogger even referred to California as a “mamma-san” state, a reference to the fact that sushi chefs—who historically have eschewed the use of gloves while rolling sushi—were among the people affected. So vociferous was the outcry, the legislature repealed the law earlier this summer. 

“We certainly didn’t expect this kind of opposition,” says Assemblyman Richard Pan, physician, who chairs the health committee, which drafted the original legislation. “We decided we had to take a step back and rethink the law.” Pan himself sponsored the repeal.

The repeal reportedly has emboldened chefs in Hawaii to make the same demands of that state’s new food safety requirements, which went into effect July 21. According to a report on the Hawaii News Now website, the owners of Morimoto Waikiki, a restaurant in Honolulu, have asked the state to rethink the law, one provision of which has changed from “as long as hands are properly washed, bare hand contact with RTE foods is allowed,” to “no bare hand contact with RTE foods.”

Not everyone in California is happy with the repeal. Liza Frias, chair of the state’s Retail Food Safety Coalition, notes, “You have everyday consumers who are looking for glove use. It’s an additional barrier to help protect food, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that workers touching food is the most common way that illnesses such as norovirus are spread.”

At the same time, there is evidence to support anti-glove activists. A study conducted in 2010 by the Journal of Food Protection suggested that gloves aren’t necessarily as effective as people believe. For example, the study found twice as much coliform bacterium on tortilla samples handled by gloves than samples handled by bare hands. The study also concluded that food handlers were less likely to wash their hands when glove usage was required, and if washing is not done thoroughly and frequently, skin beneath the gloves can become “a breeding ground for microbial proliferation” and can “increase pathogen transfer onto foods.”

The California situation has shone new light on a continuing controversy, albeit one that rarely is raised outside the kitchens of restaurants and non-commercial operations. Are gloves a help or a hindrance when it comes to guaranteeing food safety? FoodService Director spoke with a variety of stakeholders in this debate and discovered that opinions run the gamut from unwavering support of glove usage to abject disdain for the practice.

The law

ood safety is the purview of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the FDA’s Food Code spells out proper food handling techniques, including when gloves are required. However, a spokesman for the FDA notes that the code serves as more of a guide for states to follow. Section 301.11 of the code states that, “Except when washing fruits and vegetables…, food employees may not contact exposed, ready-to-use food with their bare hands and shall use suitable utensils such as deli tissues, spatulas, tongs, single-use gloves or dispensing equipment.” 
 
It is up to individual states and municipalities to set their own laws, a situation that can present challenges to companies and institutions operating in more than one state. For example, Golden Living, the senior living company headquartered in Plano, Texas, has facilities in 21 states.
 
“We pay close attention to the [food safety] laws in each state so we are always in compliance,” says Sarah Meche, spokeswoman for Golden Living. “As far as glove usage, for all of our Golden Living centers, wearing gloves is mandatory.”
 
Requiring gloves is the rule for most non-commercial foodservice operations, where food is often produced in high volumes and a significant number of people in the back of the house may come in contact with food. 

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