California implemented a requirement in January that prohibits workers in restaurants from contacting ready-to-eat foods with their bare hands. They must use of gloves, utensils or other barriers. Michigan, North Carolina, Nevada and New York have similar bans. On paper, the use of gloves for food preparation makes sense, but a research study, environmental concerns and cooking methods make requiring restaurant workers to use gloves a questionable solution.
The new code, which was based on recommendations by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), requires single-use gloves, utensils, wax paper or deli tissue when handling food that is ready to eat as prepared. Examples include fruits, salad ingredients, sushi, garnishes, bread products and anything that has already been cooked. Single-use gloves should be used for only one task and discarded before touching another type of food.
The rationale for glove use is the same as for proper hand washing. Illnesses transmitted by restaurant workers affect tens of millions a year in the U.S. The belief that hand washing alone was not enough to stop germs from spreading led to recommendations to use other means, such as gloves, to touch the food.
Glove use was already common in many large chains and grocery stores. However, it was not typically applied in non-chain restaurants or employed as intended. For example, a sandwich preparer might change gloves for each sandwich, but is using the same glove to touch the cheese, meat and vegetables rather than switching or using separate tongs for each item.
Several concerns, however, have been raised about the efficacy of banning direct use of hands by restaurant workers and make the use of gloves questionable as a solution. The first is a health concern raised by a hand hygiene study conducted by the CDC’s Environmental Health Services. The researchers collected data on hand washing and hygiene behavior in 321 randomly chosen restaurants in several states, including California. They found that workers washed their hands well for 27 percent of the food preparation activities where washing is recommended. When gloves were used, hand washing was even less likely to occur.
This echoed findings from a 2005 study where more than a third of restaurant workers acknowledged that they did not always change their gloves in between handling raw meat or poultry and ready-to-eat food. Getting hands dirty handling meat made workers want to wash their hands, but the gloves gave a false sense of sanitation. Another issue raised by the glove requirements is the plastic waste created if all restaurant workers switched out single-use gloves for each item prepared. Oregon dropped its restaurant worker glove requirement last year for environmental reasons.
The last concern raised by chefs, particularly sushi chefs, has been that feeling the food, such as the texture of a piece of fish, is important for its preparation. Other chefs mention the difficulty of wearing gloves while delicately drizzling a seasoning or other preparation tasks. They maintain that proper hand washing is all that is needed.
The public safety incidences of food-borne illnesses each year are considerable. Common-sense hand washing practices have proven to be effective, but are not employed regularly. Requiring gloves may prove to be a questionable solution for restaurant workers if they are not used correctly.
By Dyanne Weiss