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Gloves Alone Aren’t Enough for Food Safety

Gloves have become something of a symbol of food safety but, in fact, can inspire a false sense of security, conclude the authors of a series of studies published in the Journal of Food Protection.

The authors say that, contrary to common knowledge, even gloves used properly in food preparation can’t by themselves adequately protect against food contamination.  And gloves may actually pose a number of unforeseen risks because the confidence they provide may encourage risky behavior.

The authors suggest that even the best gloves are no substitute for regular, thorough hand washing.

They explain that the warm, moist environment inside every glove is an ideal place for microbial proliferation.  Glove brands differ in quality and material–vinyl gloves are more susceptible to rips than Latex gloves, for example–and bacteria can travel though the tiniest holes or tears.  Long fingernails or rings greatly increase the likelihood of glove puncture, a double threat because nails and jewelry tend to harbor higher concentrations of harmful bacteria than bare hands.

The longer gloves are worn, the more likely their effectiveness as a barrier will be breached. Numerous studies recommend that food preparers should ideally put on a new pair of gloves every two hours to guard against possible unseen punctures.

But while such “loss of integrity” in gloves can lead to contamination of foods and food-preparation surfaces, the study says that in the food-service industry the improper use of gloves is more likely to cause problems than glove leakage.

The authors note that studies in the United Kingdom have concluded that compared to bare hands, gloved hands can contribute as much if not more bacteria to foods and food-preparation surfaces, so gloves can be a cause of cross-contamination.  Gloves should be changed or sanitized when cooks move from working with raw meats to preparing vegetables and other foods.  The study suggests one disinfecting method to guard against cross-contamination, but it involves a time-consuming, five-step process:

1. Immerse the gloved hands in a 0.5% sodium hypochlorite solution

2. Remove gloves by turning them inside out and soak them in the same solution for 10 minutes

3. Wash gloves by hand, inside and out, in soapy water

4. Rinse thoroughly

5. Air test for leaks by inflating the hand and holding under water, look for bubbles and dispose if any appear

Even with this method, the authors of the study declare that “decontamination of gloves, however, can never be absolute.”  They highly recommend changing into a new pair of gloves when switching between foods.

According to the study authors, along with wearing intact gloves, the most important food safety precaution may be proper hand washing and drying.  That means washing hands with hot water and soap, followed by drying with a clean towel before putting gloves on and after taking them off.

“Washing should be performed before handling clothing from a high-risk area, changing into clothing for work in a high-risk area, entering a food handling area, and handling ready-to-eat food and after using a toilet, handling raw food, handling food waste, carrying out cleaning duties, touching non-food contact surfaces (e.g., machines, power switches, buttons and cell phones), blowing noses, and touching body parts.”

Once again, however, even this precaution is not foolproof.  “The hands of healthy individuals may be colonized with microorganisms with the potential to cause foodborne illness even after washing,” the study states.  But the authors emphasize that consistent hand washing tends to produce much better results than random and sporadic washing.

Gloves are but one of many barriers recommended by the authors to prevent foodborne illness.  Other barriers include hair nets, clean utensils, deli papers, food shields and appropriate clothing.

Gloves, however, tend to be one of the easiest food-safety methods to regulate, the study acknowledges.   Employers can easily check to see how many gloves have been used, as well as their condition.  “Glove use is easily observed to verify hygiene compliance, unlike assessing hand washing frequency and thoroughness,” the study concludes.

The study also notes that most glove studies have focused on transfer of bacteria, but the ability of gloves to prevent infection from enteric viruses, such as norovirus, has not been well studied.

Editor’s Note:  A copy of the Journal of Food Protection series on glove use is available online.  

© Food Safety News
  • http://www.handwashingforlife.com/ jimmann

    The use of single-use gloves is driven by the restaurant customer. They want to see gloves in out-front situations. Operators need to educate and facilitate their proper use. That means good gloves that fit the task which are changed regularly.
    Poor glove changing practices in Europe has resulted in little use of gloves in foodservice with a focus on better handwashing. Noble in its direction, a lowering of outbreak risk has not been witnessed.
    We need gloves but first we need to get the whole hand hygiene system under control. The best place to start is setting simple standards. Is it really surprising to have low handwashing rates and poor glove changing when few operate with measured and documented standards?
    The ease of regulating glove use in handling Ready-To-Eat(RTE) foods has become its own risk. A contaminated glove now trumps a clean hand. Perhaps we should be looking more seriously at the use of hand sanitizers and protocols like SaniTwice to facilitate frequent glove changes. The easier the protocol, the more likely its use.
    http://www.handwashingforlife.com/sanitwice_handwash_method_demonstrated

  • http://www.cookwithaloha.com Ann Hall Every, CCP

    I’ve been saying this for as long as food handlers have been using gloves to seemingly “protect” the end user of the food from food borne illnesses! Wearing gloves when preparing food is indeed NOT the protective layer separating the food preparer and the end user!
    Next time you’re in a retail food store, watch how many times, if any, the food handlers change their gloves….if they don’t put on a new pair of gloves when your turn comes to be served, I rest my case. What has the food handler done with those gloved hands before serving you? You don’t want to know.
    I do wear gloves occasionally when mixing ingredients where I don’t want to get my very clean hands goopy with stuff…but what I do is WASH MY HANDS FREQUENTLY, before, during and after handling foods being prepped and cooked. Not just a rinse under cold water either…soap, hot water and even scrubbing my nails with a brush.

  • http://www.handwashingforlife.com/ Jim Mann

    The use of single-use gloves is driven by the restaurant customer. They want to see gloves in out-front situations. Operators need to educate and facilitate their proper use. That means good gloves that fit the task which are changed regularly.
    Poor glove changing practices in Europe has resulted in little use of gloves in foodservice with a focus on better handwashing. Noble in its direction, a lowering of outbreak risk has not been witnessed.
    We need gloves but first we need to get the whole hand hygiene system under control. The best place to start is setting simple standards. Is it really surprising to have low handwashing rates and poor glove changing when few operate with measured and documented standards?
    The ease of regulating glove use in handling Ready-To-Eat(RTE) foods has become its own risk. A contaminated glove now trumps a clean hand. Perhaps we should be looking more seriously at the use of hand sanitizers and protocols like SaniTwice to facilitate frequent glove changes. The easier the protocol, the more likely its use.
    http://www.handwashingforlife.com/sanitwice_handwash_method_demonstrated

  • cbeecher

    Laurel,
    Thanks for writing this article. It contains a lot of important information. Here’s some information about gloves I included in my article about how to cook hamburgers safely. Before I did the article, I, too, thought gloves were the fail-safe.
    MYTH: Wearing gloves when handling hamburger meat provides a safe barrier against E. coli.
    FACT: Christine Bruhn, a food safety specialist at the University of California, Davis. said that gloves aren’t a complete safeguard against E. coli because the bacteria can actually travel through the pores of the gloves. That means you’ll need to wash your hands before you put on the gloves and after you’ve taken them off.

  • mom

    Latex Gloves

  • paul fonda

    wearing gloves gives the impression of more sanitary procedures, however, in reality, the employees are more careless when they have them on as opposed when they use their bare hands.
    It’s another dumb idea that looks good on paper but cannot be executed in practice when working on the line in a busy restaurant.

  • Cookson Beecher

    Laurel,
    Thanks for writing this article. It contains a lot of important information. Here’s some information about gloves I included in my article about how to cook hamburgers safely. Before I did the article, I, too, thought gloves were the fail-safe.
    MYTH: Wearing gloves when handling hamburger meat provides a safe barrier against E. coli.
    FACT: Christine Bruhn, a food safety specialist at the University of California, Davis. said that gloves aren’t a complete safeguard against E. coli because the bacteria can actually travel through the pores of the gloves. That means you’ll need to wash your hands before you put on the gloves and after you’ve taken them off.

  • Chefette

    I agree with the above statement ” the employees are more careless when they have them on as opposed when they use their bare hands.” Too often I have seen employees change gloves between tasks without the added benefit of washing their hands. Their belief is that the glove has protected them from any contaminants. It is increasingly difficult to convince them otherwise after years of indoctrination to the need for gloves without additional emphasis on the higher importance of clean hands.
    The guidelines for glove use highlight the importance of wearing gloves when working with RTE items and raw meats. Yet, the belief that “if some is good; more is better” has formed a proliferation of use that has certainly caused this epidemic of unsanitary practices.

  • Jason

    Do you have the link/reference to the full original article?

  • http://www.foodsafetynews.com sschreck

    Hi Jason,
    The original series on glove use can be found in the Journal of Food Protection. I believe there is a fee associated with downloading the articles.
    http://www.ingentaconnect.com/search/article?title=gloves&title_type=tka&journal=Journal+of+Food+Protection&journal_type=words&year_from=1998&year_to=2009&database=1&pageSize=20&index=1

  • http://www.foodsafetynews.com Suzanne Schreck

    Hi Jason,
    The original series on glove use can be found in the Journal of Food Protection. I believe there is a fee associated with downloading the articles.
    http://www.ingentaconnect.com/search/article?title=gloves&title_type=tka&journal=Journal+of+Food+Protection&journal_type=words&year_from=1998&year_to=2009&database=1&pageSize=20&index=1

  • Bill

    As a past State and local inspector, the usage of gloves was one, if not the most abused violation that i noted. People are people and we are creatures of habit, and they will always use their hands in a manner in which they are used to. With this being said, in most observations i have noticed, gloves give the wearer this sense their hands are not soiled and therefore they do not feel the contamination or the need to wash their hands. I have watched people scratch their noses, face, ears, brush back their hair, all while preparing or working with foods with their gloves on and not thinking about it, then just keep on preparing foods. I cannot tell you how many times i have watched people take off their gloves (single use) and place them in their pocket, or on a counter, only to return and place the same gloves back on. This just does not work. As mentioned above, a very false sense of security for the worker and the public.

  • MIndy

    I will only eat at places that wear gloves….you say, ok if they dont change their gloves, its a false sense of cleaniness…yet how often do you see these people wash their hands in the back? Subway is a perfect example, they wash their hands constantly, and then put on gloves…most places DO change their gloves often…I was delivered take out by a guy whos finger nails were so dirty that even HAD he washed his hands, it wouldnt have mattered because he obviously he didnt wash under his nails…do you want those hands on YOUR food? At least if they have gloves on, the hard to reach places are not getting on your food. Also, I have went and actually WATCHED places where they dont wear gloves, and these people will scratch their chin, wipe sweat off their foreheads, wipe snot from their noses (big health hazard) and then go back to making the food without rewashing their hands…Ive also watched people who wear gloves and these people tend to use their arm or shoulder when they get an itch, because they are MORE AWARE the glove is on. I mean, these people are strangers, you dont know what they do at home. What about rings on peoples hands? They touch animals, wipe their butts, and these rings are constantly on their hands, handling food right after they used the bathroom. I am sure a ton of bacteria lives on the metal that may not have been washed properly, hence a glove protects against that. I am for gloves, and would rather take the chance that they change their gloves regularly, than the chance that these people will wash their hands after touching their face, or hoping they wash their hands correctly after using the toliet