A new law in the California Retail Food Code has chefs and bartenders fuming. Effective immediately, culinary workers will have to wear disposable gloves or use utensils (such as tongs, scoops etc) when handling foods in ready-to-eat form.
Assembly Bill 1252 added section 113961 to the California Retail Food Code (CalCode) that went into effect on January 1, 2014. The section prohibits bare hand contact with ready-to-eat food, which prevents “protection against contamination with microbial or viral pathogens from the hands of food service employees.” Ready-to-eat food includes edibles that won’t be cooked or reheated before they go out to consumers or diners. Examples include salads, breads, deli meats, sushi, fresh fruits etc.
New law draws negative reactions
Ready-to-eat (RTE) foods including raw sushi fish and sushi rice can be especially difficult to work with, if one has to wear gloves. Niki Nakayama, the chef of N/naka, tells LA Times, “making sushi is incredibly hard to do with gloves on. No. 1, the rice is so sticky, the rice would stick to the gloves undoubtedly. Plus you lose that sense of feel, which is everything in sushi making. You have to know exactly the right pressure to put on ingredients. Wearing a glove would hurt the product.”
While some chefs may be opposed to the idea of wearing gloves while cooking, there’s also some confusion in the fine dining community about the intent of the law. Jordan R. Bernstein, counselor to restaurant clients, explained to the LA Times that the law was originally intended to regulate fast food establishments like Subway, and not fine dining restaurants that have different training procedures and employ a different caliber of people.
Bartenders, who are also covered under this law, feel safety gloves are unnecessary. “You are constantly washing your hands or having them touching ice and juice…it will just get into the gloves anyway,” bartender Jen Naruo-Stefanac says.
New safety glove law creates more waste
Implementing a plastic bag ban and then asking businesses to use gloves (manufactured of plastic) all in the same month sounds odd to some. Neal Fraser, chef-owner of BLD restaurant and Fritzi Dog remarks, “People get into the tendency to not wash their hands. And environmentally it’s very unfriendly. It’s funny that at the same time L.A. institutes a plastic bag ban, there’s this.”
Wearing gloves could be dangerous and also lead to waste. Cooking with gloves on an open flame can induce injuries and cause the gloves to melt on food. Jenn Louis who runs the Lincoln Restaurant and Sunshine Tavern in Portland Oregon and is required to wear gloves at work says, “They’re not using fire and heat, and I think rubber gloves can really pose a danger to cooking with an open flame. Say, for instance, that something melts on someone’s hand. What happens then?…For a city so concerned with sustainability and being environmentally friendly, this is going to produce a tremendous amount of waste.”
Safety gloves could cause (and increase) problem of cross-contamination
It remains to be seen if gloves will have any significant impact on food safety or add to the frustrations of culinary artists. However, the risk of cross-contamination could increase as cooks and kitchen workers move from vegetables to raw meat without changing gloves.
Chefs are keenly aware of cleanliness when they use their hands, which is not the case when they use gloves. Moreover, gloves give a false sense of hygiene. Ed Zimmerman, a former kitchen manager recalls, “I first saw gloves on a sandwich maker/cashier. The woman made my sandwich and proceeded to ring me up, take the money, and headed back to the sandwich line. I said, ‘Aren’t you required to wash your hands after you handle money?’ ‘No,’ she politely replied, ‘I have gloves on.'”
Roxana Jullapat, pastry chef at Cooks County, speaking to the LA Times, points out, “Nothing good is happening in there where it’s warm and sweaty. And I bet it’s three months before a glove shows up in a salad.”
During the next six months, The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health will only issue warnings for non-compliance by culinary workers. By the end of the grace period, restaurants failing to meet the new regulations could see a reduction in their health score.
Restaurants looking to exempt themselves from the new law will have to fulfill stringent requirements and training, and furnish their health guidelines in writing. It’s still unclear in which cases exemptions will be granted, however.
1/30/2014: This post has been updated for clarity.