The double-hand washing requirement for foodservice workers is about to become history in Oregon, upgraded to a rule that restaurant personnel must wear disposable gloves when prepping and plating foods. Yet even some food safety experts aren’t sure all-gloves-all-the-time is a good idea.
Everyone in the restaurant industry knows the critical role hand washing plays in food safety. But some state and local health authorities are looking to enforce a higher standard. They would require restaurant kitchen workers to wear gloves while prepping and serving food. The idea is that bare hands will never touch any food that leaves a restaurant’s kitchen.
At the state level, New York and Washington already have regulations like this on the books. Oregon was scheduled to join them on July 1. But Oregon chefs and restaurateurs went ballistic when they learned of the new rule. The Oregon Health Authority has put the new rule on temporary hold, scheduling additional hearings in August to listen to operator concerns.
The theory behind the no-bare-hands rule seems solid: place a physical barrier between bare hands and food. But on-the-ground restaurant workers say the new rule would be costly and time-consuming without producing a net gain in food safety.
Here’s how Andy Ricker, chef/owner of standout Thai restaurant Pok Pok in both Portland, OR and New York City, characterized the industry’s concerns for website OregonLive.com.
“The idea that using rubber gloves is going to stop people from getting sick is ludicrous,” he says. “For it to be safe, every time you touch something, you’d have to take your gloves off, wash your hands, and put on new gloves.”
Ricker isn’t exaggerating. In fact, he’s got it exactly right. Swapping old gloves for new ones multiple times each day is the cornerstone of the proposed new rule. The Food Code Fact Sheet #1 put out by the Oregon Health Authority says foodservice workers:
“…should change gloves at the following times:
• as soon as they become soiled or torn;
• before beginning a different task; and
• after handling raw meat, fish, or poultry and before handling ready-to-eat food.”
Strict adherence to the new rule would cause restaurant kitchen workers to stop whatever prep work they’re doing, strip off and dispose of their current pair of single-use gloves, go over to their kitchen’s dedicated hand sink to wash their hands and then pull on a new pair of glove dozens of times each working day.
Restaurant owners are with the Oregon Health Authority all the way when it comes to maximizing food safety. They differ on this particular issue because the no-bare-hand contact rule seems cumbersome, adding inconvenience and time-wasting to a kitchen worker’s job without any concomitant increase in food safety.
Who’s right? We like the perspective given in a paper authored by O. Peter Snyder, Ph.d., “A ‘Safe Hands’ Hand Wash Program For Retail Food Operations.”
“Some states, such as New York and local or city ordinances have made glove wearing by food workers mandatory, in spite of the fact that there is no documented evidence that food prepared and served by people wearing gloves is safer than food prepared by people who use effective hand washing procedures. No regulatory agency has been able to force the food industry through regulation and inspection to ensure that all food workers wash their hands because they have no way to measure if hands have been washed. Therefore, some regulatory agencies have chosen to enforce glove use by food workers.…”
Snyder’s full paper is the most comprehensive document on hand washing we’ve seen yet. The most interesting detail in it is this one: “The use of a fingernail brush when hands are washed provides over 350 times greater removal of transient organisms from the hands than hand washing without a brush.” That seems like an option health departments would be eager to explore before going all in on disposable gloves.
But going all in is what at least a few health departments are doing. Keep an eye on how the new Oregon rule plays out; it might be a preview of new regulations that could be put in place in your state, county or city.