Slowly, the ramifications of a new CA law forcing almost all food handlers to wear gloves is becoming apparent. In recent days, it's dawned on people that the law also covers bartenders, as long as that bartender is using garnishes of any kind (like a twist for a martini). Chefs from around the country are reacting: well-known cookbook author Michael Ruhlman wrote an essay about it on his blog; the L.A. Times published a story about how much chefs hate the new law; on Twitter, the reaction has been incredulous.
There are many reasons chefs and others are upset about the law. There are concerns about environmentalism, with people pointing out that at the very same time California is trying to do away with plastic bags, the state is creating a mandate to severely increase the use of plastic or latex gloves. Many chefs argue that gloves will not prevent cross-contamination with other foods, and that bacteria is more likely to thrive in the sweaty, warm environment of a gloved hand than a thoroughly-washed bare hand. But the thing it really got me wondering is: When we get sick from food, why do we get sick from food? Will this law help prevent any illness at all?
The answer, as you might imagine, is fairly complicated. What's clear is that on a larger scale, food handling at the end of the process is not one of the major concerns when it comes to curbing foodborne illness.
In the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) Plan for Program Priorities, 2013-2014 report, there is no mention of food handling in restaurants. Rather, manufacturing and the supply chain are the focus of proposed solutions to making food safer. In Britain, it's a similar story: The UK's food safety priorities for 2014 focus on processing, not end-of-the-line food preparation. The USDA's priorities when it comes to food safety do include some work on the handling of food in restaurants, but those have to do with the proper handling and cooking of poultry.
This shouldn't come as a surprise: Search LA Weekly's site for the word "outbreak" and you'll come across article after article about illness caused by problems at production facilities, like bagged salad packaging plants and meat-processing plants.
If you look at the CDC's information about how food becomes contaminated, food handling is certainly a factor, though it's one tiny part of a long list of factors, most of them having to do with how meat and vegetables are produced, stored and cooked. In a few hours of looking over data about foodbourne illness, it appears that only a tiny fraction of confirmed cases lead back to a food handler rather than an outbreak of salmonella or some other pathogen picked up during production and packaging.
Also, an article published in 2010 argues that the use of gloves alone doesn't necessarily adequately protect against food contamination. Food Safety News explains:
...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.
If the state of California is going to be legislating changes to help prevent foodborne illness, shouldn't they maybe mandate more oversight of production? It makes the conspiracy-minded among us wonder: Is it just easier to make laws that will impact small individual businesses rather than large, powerful corporate businesses?
Of course, people do get sick because sick people handle their food in restaurants. Rather than mandating that your bartender wear a glove to flame the orange on your cocktail, perhaps it might make more sense to mandate that restaurant and food workers get paid sick leave so that they're less likely to show up sick in the first place. Gloves or no, I don't want someone with a stomach virus cooking my burger.
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I don't think any of us would argue against the idea that our food should be safer. But if we're going to devote resources and write laws towards that aim, perhaps we should focus on real problems rather than complicating the lives of cooks and bartenders with overbearing laws requiring cumbersome tactics that may not even work.
(Note: I've had some mail from readers upset that our previous coverage of the new glove law in CA didn't properly explain the exemption part of the law. To be clear, restaurants can request an exemption, though the process to do so is unclear, as is how cumbersome meeting the requirements of the exemption would be. According to the L.A. Times, "it's not clear how the Los Angeles County health department will enforce the new regulations or how it would allot exemptions.")