Some chefs and bartenders in California are miffed about a new regulation restricting them from handling ready-to-eat foods with their bare hands. At the beginning of January, language in the state’s food code changed from directing food employees to “minimize bare hand and arm contact” to strictly requiring them not to:
“Except when washing fruits and vegetables … food employees shall not contact exposed, ready-to-eat food with their bare hands and shall use suitable utensils such as deli tissue, spatulas, tongs, single-use gloves, or dispensing equipment.”
The “no bare hands” rule is pretty common on a national level. In fact, it’s included in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s model food code, which many states have already adopted. Even though the new regulation is not dramatically new, California’s chefs have been speaking out against it, and bartenders are signing a petition to have themselves exempted. Charlotte Biltekoff, an assistant professor in American Studies and Food Science and Technology at the University of California, Davis, said she’s not surprised that Californians are particularly irked by the new regulation. “California food culture and California cuisine are characterized by an ethos of connection to food,” she told Food Safety News. “For example, menus often inform diners about where their food comes from by naming the exact farm, or farmer, who grew the peaches or pork on the plate. But connection to food is also interpreted quite literally in terms of both tasting and touching food.” Emphasizing a removal of barriers can increase a sense of responsibility and sustainability for the food system, Biltekoff said. “The experiences of pleasure, knowledge and responsibility are seen as intimately connected and (through the lens of California cuisine) pleasure depends on a direct sensual connection to food – exactly the kind of connection that rubber gloves threaten,” she said. Some of the arguments out of California about the rule are that single-use gloves are not environmentally friendly, that they can interfere with food preparation and that they won’t necessarily limit cross-contamination. That last one is certainly not a new concern among food safety experts. “When properly used, gloves can substantially reduce opportunities for food contamination,” explained the authors of a 2010 study in the Journal of Food Protection. “However, gloves have limitations and may become a source of contamination if they are punctured or improperly used.” “Hand washing is not a perfect intervention,” said Rutgers professor Don Schaffner. Eliminating bare hand contact and opting for utensils or gloves is probably more effective, but gloves are “also not necessarily a perfect intervention.” Microorganisms may still be transmitted through gloves if food workers don’t wash their hands before putting on the gloves. And, because gloves provide a warm, moist environment for microbes to proliferate, they could increase transmission during glove removal or if there’s a puncture in the material. Of course, cooks wearing gloves still have to watch out for cross-contamination if they’re working with both uncooked and cooked foods. “If you’re wearing gloves and you handle meat and then you don’t change those gloves and you go and handle ready-to-eat lettuce, the gloves haven’t done anything except serve as another vehicle to transfer the organisms,” Schaffner said. “In the food industry improper use of gloves is more likely than leakage to lead to food contamination and outbreaks,” stated the authors of the 2010 study. As for the arguments about the environment and ability, Schaffner said they’re valid points. “I guess I would answer the chefs’ complaints with an alternative question to them,” he said. “Given that we know that contamination from hands can cause disease, what would the chefs propose as an alternative? What can they do in their work habits to avoid cross-contamination?” To help restaurants adjust to the new rule, California health officials have agreed to give restaurants six months when they’ll hand out warnings rather than violations on inspections. The law also provides for individual retail food facilities to apply to their local environmental health agency for exemptions.