Your hands are covered in germs. But don’t worry—so are my hands and the hands of most doctors, food workers, and dentists. Germs are the reason why the professionals I just mentioned typically wear gloves at work. Handwashing is essential and helpful, but sometimes an extra barrier is needed between hands and the things they touch.
Bare Hand Contact
Bare hand contact means touching ready-to-eat foods with bare hands. According to the FDA, bare hand contact can transfer dangerous pathogens from hands to food, spreading foodborne illness. In fact, bare hand contact with ready-to-eat foods is responsible for 30% of restaurant foodborne illness outbreaks. That’s quite a chunk. Bare hand contact is especially problematic with ready-to-eat foods because they are intended to be eaten without any additional washing or cooking. That’s why the FDA Food Code prohibits bare hand contact with ready-to-eat foods.
The FDA gives health departments the power to allow certain restaurants to practice bare hand contact in carefully controlled situations. The decision to grant that permission is up to the local regulatory authority. Otherwise, bare hand contact is a heath code violation.
Gloves and Utensils
To prevent bare hand contact, most food handlers wear gloves. Gloves never replace handwashing. Food workers and other professionals should wash their hands before putting on gloves to remove as many dangerous pathogens as possible. Inevitably, some food handlers will wash their hands and practice good hygiene better than others. Gloves provide an added barrier between any germs that might still be lurking on freshly washed hands or that might have been accidentally picked up by the food worker.
Gloves are a great solution for avoiding bare hand contact, but they can be inconvenient. For example, a cashier at a bakery might also be in charge of getting ready-to-eat food from a display case, and the extra time it would take to wash her hands and put on fresh gloves after every transaction would add up fast. When gloves are inconvenient, they can be substituted by utensils that employees use to handle food instead of touching it directly. Instead of gloves, food handlers can use tongs, deli tissue, or other utensils that allow the food handler to transport food without contaminating it.
In 2014, California passed a law that banned bare hand contact across the state. Many high-end sushi chefs protested, saying that bare hand contact is an integral part of the sushi art form. These chefs explained that they were trained to be meticulously clean and wash their hands constantly to maintain good hand hygiene. California authorities listened to the protest and changed the law to minimize bare hand contact instead of prohibiting it.
Most states that require gloves allow restaurants to get a variance for bare hand contact. Variances are individualized permission slips given to restaurants on a case-by-case basis. Variances can be given for a variety of food preparation reasons. They always require documentations showing that the establishment can deviate from the Food Code and still serve safe food. In the case of bare hand contact, restaurants are required to prove that food handlers practice hand hygiene to such a level that they can skip gloves in certain instances.
But not all health departments are willing to give out variances. When New York faced protests for banning bare hand contact, the health department responded by saying that if neurosurgeons could operate with gloves, so could sushi chefs. High-end sushi chefs and others in New York faced the choice to either comply with the food code or incur a violation for bare hand contact. Some chefs chose the violation.
Gloves as a Crutch
Gloves can be a helpful part of hand hygiene, but some food workers treat them like a cure-all. For example, food handlers can rely too heavily on gloves to prevent foodborne illness, neglecting other areas of hygiene and food safety that have a big an impact on the safety of the food they serve. If not used properly, gloves themselves can become contaminated and spread foodborne illness. Whether or not a restaurant uses gloves, the key to food safety in any food establishment is excellent food worker hygiene. Without that, no amount of gloves will keep food safe.
Food Safety Reminder
Frequent and thorough handwashing is a food worker’s best defense against the spread of foodborne illness. Wash hands before handling food, after handling raw meat, when switching tasks, and after performing any activity that could contaminate hands.