Last year, when Oregon Health Authority officials announced they would adopt the 2009 FDA Retail Food Code, restaurateurs suddenly faced a piece of legislation that would prohibit foodservice workers to touch prepared food with their bare hands. The gloves came off.
The no-bare-hands rule was originally supposed to go into effect on July 1, but Oregon public health officials delayed the decision because of public debate that these new safety rules were not actually safe.
The rule would have prohibited food handlers from contacting “exposed, ready-to-eat food” with their bare hands. Instead, any contact would have to be made with “suitable utensils,” including deli tissue, spatulas, tongs and single-use gloves.
Wednesday, regulators of Oregon's Foodborne Illness Prevention Program announced that “…at this time, the ‘No Bare Hand Contact’ section of new food safety rules will not be adopted.”
Among the complaints raised by food experts: gloves give foodservice handlers a false sense of cleanliness, create more plastic waste (especially since plastic bags are banned in Oregon) and add a supplementary cost for restaurateurs.
“While the regulation is being put into place to prevent norovirus contamination, the bottom line is that gloves alone will not prevent the problem without being used in combination with hand washing,” says Mindy Brashears, a professor of food safety at Texas Tech University. Norovirus is what laymen more commonly refer to as food poisoning.
“We would not want an employee to simply put on a pair of gloves after using the restroom; we also need them to wash their hands. Covering up contaminated hands is not the answer, removing the contamination is important,” she says.
Oregon-based chefs like Adam Sappington and John Gorham agree.
Sappington, the executive chef at The Country Cat Dinner House & Bar in Portland, regards the now-void ban as “crazy.”
“I got a little philosophical about the whole idea. It takes away one of the senses of cooking,” he says. “It’s more likely that you’re going to wash your hands less, and moving from hot to cold, hot to cold in gloves, things are just going to fester.”
“As much as people are fighting against the gloves, I spend a lot of money on gloves,” says Gorham, who says his staff does wear gloves when butchering and cleaning fish and shellfish.
“Most of the gloves are made out of a rubber product and they break down with animal fat,” he says, noting plastic's potential to leach chemicals into meat.
“I’ll do what I think is best, but I’m not going to obey a law that will actually harm you,” he says.
Members of Oregon’s Foodborne Illness Prevention Program are hopeful that industry intuition, like Gorham's, will help avoid fisticuffs in the future.
In addition to dismissing the bare-hand rule, the program’s website stated it will, in the next few months, allow restaurateurs, chefs, government inspectors and interested consumers to form a workgroup and have a hand in future food safety decisions.