Think the new law requiring food workers to wear plastic gloves keeps you safe? Think again.
By Leslie Bilderback 02/27/2014
I can’t help but feel a small sense of superiority when I remember to bring my tote bags into the market. After years of warning my kids about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (that Texas-size island of plastic waste still growing in the North Pacific), religiously gathering plastic recyclables and shunning plastic water bottles in favor of reusable aluminum ones, I was gratified to see more cities institute plastic-bag bans. Which is why I was all the more dumbfounded when I heard of the new California law, implementing Assembly Bill 1252, that bans bare-handed contact with ready-to-eat food and requires cooks to wear plastic gloves. With one signature we are reversing much of the good that the plastic bag ban is doing.
Mandatory cooking in gloves is a stupid idea, and one that I will now add to my collection of asinine paranoia, which already includes the War on Drugs and the Transportation Security Administration. Has there been a sudden rash of foodborne illness that I am unaware of? Or are we just getting prepared for the inevitable zombiepocalypse?
Photo by Joe Atlas, www.joeatlasphotography.com
The biggest noise thus far has come from bartenders, who are now forced to don gloves when adding your twist. Plastic gloves not only make it harder to wield sharp tools and slippery glasses, but they simply aren’t sexy, which is actually a legitimate concern for bartenders. (Lack of sex appeal can really hurt tips.) There is a point to be made about the look of a rubber glove. There should never be a piece of equipment in a restaurant kitchen that reminds you of a prostate exam. Never.
Chefs are complaining too. Besides being a huge expense, the gloves do not allow you to feel the food. The sense of feel is a vital component of jobs in which you work with your hands. Gloves slow down production and can diminish quality.
Sushi chefs are the most vulnerable because theirs is a Zen thing. Not only do they handle the raw fish, they become one with it. I have never been “at one” with the food I cook, although I definitely am what I eat. I can think of dozens of instances when a glove would inhibit my ability to accurately determine food’s doneness, move quickly through tasks or decorate precisely. In some cases, as in working with dough, they render the job impossible.
But unless there is some new kind of dangerous virus being spread by contact that we don’t know about, I can’t see how gloves make our food any safer. If a worker is not washing his hands when he should, who’s to say he’s going to change his gloves when he should? And while it appears that a lack of hand-washing is the thing these gloves are supposed to compensate for, they are, perversely, likely to reduce the amount of hand-washing being done, by providing a false sense of security—
as contact with the goop is what promotes frequent hand-washing.
Having taught and taken many food safety courses, I can tell you that there are many more causes of foodborne illness than bare hands. For instance:
Cooks should never wear their dirty chef coats out of the kitchen, but they do.That thing is covered with food, including protein-based items now carted around town in the danger zone (an industry phrase that describes the temperatures between 41º and 140º, where protein-loving bacteria can really party. Above that temperature, bacteria is killed, below that it is dormant.). When you see a cook with a food-smeared smock, stay back. Way back. The same is true for any clothing worn in a kitchen, but people who cook in T-shirts are harder to spot.
Shoelaces are also a serious threat. Shoes worn in a kitchen are covered with food, grease, dirt and more food. Slip-ons get covered in food too, but you don’t have to tie them. This is one of the reasons chefs wear clogs. (Really, the only good reason.) If you tie your schmutzy shoelaces, you’d better promise to wash your hands before you touch anything. This danger is discussed less, so, as you can imagine, it goes unenforced. Shoelaces — the silent killers.
Unwashed fruit is another huge area of concern. Cooks often don’t bother to wash fruit, especially if it is going to be peeled anyway. Melons are a particular problem. But if there are bacteria on the fruit skin (and there often are, especially when storage and workspace is shared with meats), it easily gets spread by contact. My favorite statistic, which I pull out during such discussions, is that more salmonella cases are caused by fruit than by raw eggs.
Sneezing is evil. That’s why we say, “Bless you” – to deter the devil, who uses the sneeze to enter your soul. Even if you turn your head, your sneeze is out there. Haven’t you seen those gross slow-motion films of sneezes that show how the “moisture” disperses into microscopic particles, which linger in the air? The only thing that can save us is a tissue. I swear, a face mask would be better for public health than stupid gloves. This leads me to the code-one threat to public health — letting kitchen workers work when they are sick. When you’re sick, you should definitely stay home — except if we really need you on the shift. Or you have to meet your rent. Or your kid needs shoes. There is almost never any paid sick leave in the restaurant business. And while there is plenty of public concern for the health of the customers, there is no public concern for the health and well-being of the workers. No glove law is going to change that. The law will be only “softly” enforced for the next six months, with no hard-core enforcement until January 2015. Doesn’t this fact alone tell you that it is not a serious problem? Wouldn’t a real threat be met with stronger action?
On a personal note (because I hardly ever add personal notes), I have a horrendous allergy to plastic, which manifests itself first by itchy bumps, followed by swelling. When I have had to wear gloves in the past, my hands swelled up like catcher’s mitts. I can’t be the only one who suffers from this allergy. What will folks like me have to do to be able to work? Bring the state Assembly a doctor’s note?
Leslie Bilderback, a certified master baker, chef and author of Mug Cakes: 100 Speedy Microwave Treats to Satisfy your Sweet Tooth (St. Martin’s Press). She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.