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Hold the Bacteria: Made-to-Order Disease

(This article by Sydney Ross Singer was originally posted on his blog Sept. 30, 2015, and is reposted here with his permission.)

The next time you are in a sandwich shop or deli where workers make your sandwich in front of you as you select items to be included, check out their hands. According to law, there should be no direct hand contact with your food by the sandwich maker. Hands are dirty and vectors of disease, and food can be contaminated by the worker touching, for example, money in the cash register and then touching your lunch meat. To prevent this obvious source of disease, the law requires such workers to wear gloves to keep hands clean.

Here’s the rub: The clean gloves are often made dirty by workers putting them on with dirty hands.

Deli sandwich worker wearing glovesI have personally watched employees in different national chain sandwich shops working both the cash register and making sandwiches. The restaurants seemed short-staffed, so the employees were multitasking. After making a sandwich while wearing gloves, the employees then took off their gloves to ring up the last customer and then handled the old gloves with their dirty hands to put them on again to make a sandwich for the next customer.

While management should have instructed these workers to wash their hands before putting on their gloves, the reality is that workers who need to repeatedly work with both cash and food would need to wash their hands as often as healthcare professionals. However, these restaurant workers, many of whom have had only a high-school education or less, are not intensively trained as healthcare workers are to wash their hands dozens of times a day.

These restaurant workers think of their gloves as ways to keep their hands clean instead of seeing the gloves as ways to keep the food clean.

According to a food safety inspector, some workers ignorantly keep the same pair of gloves on for long periods of time, even going to the bathroom while wearing the same gloves, and returning to make sandwiches, still with the same gloves on. Doing so kept their hands clean all day, but who knows how many customers got sick from the sandwiches made by these dirty gloved hands?

Here are some ways this easily preventable source of disease can be mitigated:

  1. Restaurant management needs to remind their workers of the need to change gloves frequently and wash their hands thoroughly before handling a new pair of gloves.
  2. There should be dedicated employees working the cash register and those working with food. Having employees doing both increases the chances of food contamination.
  3. While standing in line for the worker to make your sandwich, observe their cleanliness habits as they make other sandwiches and how many other non-food objects they touch with their gloved hands. When it’s your turn, ask the employee to change gloves and wash their hands before putting on their new gloves.
  4. Keep in mind that, however clean the employee’s hands are when they make your sandwich, your hands could be dirty and a source of disease, especially since you have to handle money to pay for your sandwich just before you eat it. Remember to wash or use hand sanitizer before handling your food.

Food safety is only as good as the weakest link, and when it comes to sandwich shops, that link could be dirty money, dirty hands, and dirty gloves.

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