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.