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 The California Restaurant Association had even withdrawn its objections to the bill, preferring to bow to the inevitable.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 So vociferous was the outcry, the legislature repealed the law earlier this summer.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.
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.
Getting behind a program, however, doesn’t mean that chefs like it—or even agree with it.
“I don’t know how much foodborne illness [the California] law would have prevented,” says Jet Tila, a Los Angeles-based chef who does consulting work with food management giant Compass Group, as well as several restaurants and food manufacturers across the country. “I think it’s a little extreme. For example, I don’t think it’s very practical for sushi chefs to have to wear gloves. Now, I don’t think any chef or operator can deny that if you use them properly, gloves are a very safe way to prevent foodborne illness. But so are sanitizing stations and washing hands.”
Paul Melchior, dining services director at San Diego State University, called the law “misguided.”
“The law was passed without due diligence, maybe as a reactive movement,” says Melchior in explaining why he believes the law was repealed. “The reality is, food handlers think they are wearing gloves to protect their hands from food, not to protect consumers from contamination. Spent gloves fill up our landfills, which if they were effective would be a choice worth making. But since gloves may be ineffective in their intent of protecting consumers, sending large amounts of gloves to landfills is idiotic.”
Ida Shen, former director of culinary and training for Cal Dining at the University of California, Berkeley, and now the executive chef at Google, in Mountain View, Calif., says that a mandate on glove usage ignores the fact that foodservice workers already should be well versed in food safety techniques.
“The law itself is well-intentioned, but it probably does go a bit too far,” Shen says. “If you go to culinary school or are trained in any apprenticeship, you should already understand proper cleaning and sanitation.”
But she adds that she also realizes the need for what might amount to overkill in operations like Berkeley’s.
“I’m torn because there’s the part of me who is a chef who says I don’t want to use the gloves and they’re a hindrance,” she explains. “But in college and university foodservice, where customer safety is so important, gloves can be a very important safety measure when you’re feeding thousands of people at one time. Gloves are cheap. Foodborne illness is not.”
One of the most strident critics of glove usage might be Nicola Torres, executive chef at The Garlands at Barrington, in northern Illinois.
“I’m all for ending the use of gloves and training and disciplining staff on washing hands as much as possible,” Torres suggests. “After all, by law you must wash your hands before and in between glove usage. Most of the time they are misused by staff, which leads to a false sense of security or safety. That is actually worse. They [also] impair cooks’ sense of touch.”
Few colleagues would argue with Torres’ rationale.
“Gloves are not as effective as many people believe they are,” says Paul Nicolini, culinary manager at Penn State University’s Worthington Scranton campus. “I personally would like to see people washing their hands more often than using gloves. The problem with [gloves] is that customers never see employees washing their hands but feel safe when they see disposable gloves [being worn].”
Aside from hand washing, Nicolini says that glove usage presents another problem. “I have found myself cutting the fingertips off gloves if I actually wear the size that fits comfortably,” he explains, adding that his solution is to wear a glove one size smaller than his hand. Uncomfortable? Yes, he notes, but also safer—he also knows that cutting the glove means cutting his finger.
“I think they are a hindrance, especially when preparing salads,” says Butch Jenkins, CDM, senior dining services director for Emeritus of Greensboro, a senior living company in North Carolina. “If I am putting a dinner roll on a plate it’s just not practical to think I now have to stop and glove up first. It just seems like it is another hurdle to get over.”
Shen agrees with Jenkins. “Wearing gloves while making a salad is a pain because once the oils touch the gloves, you’re trying to hold the bowl and everything is slippery,” she relates. “A properly tossed salad really needs the manipulation of the hands, in my opinion. You don’t get the dispersion of the vinaigrette among the greens using tongs. Also, properly plating a dish to make it look beautiful needs the dexterity.”
There was a time...
“A pair of clean hands beats a soiled glove any day,” says Tim Oehmsen, executive chef at Northeastern Rehabilitation Hospital, in Salem, N.H., expressing his concern over glove usage. “Growing up working in restaurants and other foodservice production facilities in the 1980s, I never saw any chef or prep cook wearing gloves while cooking, preparing or plating food. It wasn’t until I was working at a restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard in the early ’90s that I saw a box of gloves appear on the line. The chef only used them when he was cleaning fish.”
However, Oehmsen understands that he’s not at a restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard any more. “In my current position, there isn’t any thought of not wearing gloves at all times while handling food items,” he says. “All of the support staff have had the ‘glove thing’ instilled in them since starting employment here. Being a rehab hospital, we deal with many young and old patients who may be more susceptible to any sort of foodborne illness or food handling miscue.”
However, despite the reservations many chefs have and the exceptions they’d like to see, they still toe the line when it comes to state or local health laws. For example, Emeritus’ Jenkins might think gloves are a pain to use, but he emphasizes that his staff all wear gloves when plating food to serve to residents, and in-service days reinforce the notion.
“Gloves are very effective,” says Cedric Junearick, foodservice director at Huntsville Hospital, in Alabama. “I know if I am eating out I hate for people to touch my food with their bare hands unless I physically see them wash their hands. Gloves need to be used in the healthcare arena just due to the touching of so many different items.”
Carrie Anderson, executive chef for residential dining services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, agrees. “With proper training and follow-through, the practice is a positive and safe one,” Anderson says. “I do not feel that it is a hindrance in any way. It protects yourself, your place of business and the customer.”
Bill Brizzolara, executive chef at North Carolina State University, says that the Wake County Health Department requires glove usage only on ready-to-eat foods, but he goes several steps further.
“In a large operation like ours I insist on glove use except when knife cuts for vegetables are required,” Brizzolara says. “I just feel more secure when I see gloves being used when cooks are dealing with raw proteins, making hors d’oeuvres, sandwiches and salads, dropping items in the fryer and cutting up fresh fruit. They are a great food safety tool if proper training and reinforcement is practiced.”
The challenge of education
That Brizzolara’s belief comes with a caveat underlines the biggest challenge facing foodservice operators—“if” used properly. Many chefs could write a book outlining the unsafe practices they’ve seen.
“The biggest mistake I see is cooks walking around outside the kitchen wearing gloves,” says Darla Mehrkens, catering chef at Carilion Clinic, in Roanoke, Va. “Not only are you risking cross-contamination if you touch any food or surface, but it doesn’t look good to customers.”
Jim Roth, executive chef at Elmhurst Memorial Hospital, in suburban Chicago, can relate. “I’ve seen how long employees will wear gloves without changing them,” Roth says. “I had to stop one employee when he was heading to the bathroom without removing his gloves.”
The major problem, most chefs agree, is that in the minds of many employees, gloves are all the protection they need in the kitchen. Shen suggests that some foodservice workers have a backward notion of gloves and food safety. “They forget that the gloves are supposed to protect the customer,” she notes. “They think they’re protecting [themselves]; as long as their hands are clean the gloves are working. So you will have people who will take out the garbage wearing their gloves, then come back and continue working with the same set of gloves.”
Other chefs say that the increasing emphasis on glove usage has led to lax standards in other areas, particularly hand washing.
“Most people feel that changing gloves takes the place of hand washing,” says Penn State’s Nicolini. “Or they think that wiping a gloved hand with a towel is the same as changing gloves.”
Peter Fischbach, regional director of culinary development for Gourmet Dining LLC, in Tom’s River, N.J., says he has witnessed foodservice employees standing outside smoking cigarettes while wearing their gloves or handling money with gloves on. “Gloves give people this notion that they can do whatever they want simply because they have gloves on,” he explains.
Huntsville’s Junearick concurs, adding, “People still will cough into their hands, scratch their face or push their hair out of their eyes while wearing gloves. They don’t know they are practicing unsafe procedures.”
So, what’s the solution to this ongoing challenge? Lots and lots of education, chefs say.
“It comes down to training, and it’s more training than you would assume,” Shen says. “It’s not once a year. It’s going in every month, and for the executive chef it’s a weekly or even a daily reminder to cooks and foodservice workers that if you are handling food and it’s the last time that it’s being touched before the customer gets it, wear clean gloves.”
“This is what we instill in every employee that works at the university,” says Chris Kaschak, executive chef at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham. “All employees must wash their hands and exposed portions of their arms with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Then dry them with a single-use disposable paper towel. Then gloves can be put on. This process must be done after every task or when the employee leaves his or her work area.”
Gourmet Dining’s Fischbach says he gives his staff a very practical explanation for why hands need to be washed each time gloves are changed.
“I tell them, ‘If you remove your gloves you are touching them with your bare hands, so whatever bacteria you had on the glove is now on your hands. So when you pull the new gloves from the box they have now come in contact with the bacteria from the old gloves, which completely defeats the purpose of wearing gloves.’”
Fischbach says employees are reminded in weekly meetings and with signs and posters “in all areas where food handling occurs,” and managers continually observe staff and correct improper procedures.
“I’d like to see [glove usage] laws go away and spend more time on education,” Tila says. “Hand washing is the No. 1 cure to foodborne illness. We have the right tools. The [Food] Code is strong. We don’t need to add code, we just need to enforce the code better.”