It's quite ironic that on the same day Los Angeles started enforcing a plastic bag ban in the city (with the rest of California poised to follow), the state also instituted a plastic glove requirement for food handlers. Which leads us to wonder... are we simply trading one problem for another?
The new section of the California Retail Food Code now prohibits bare hand contact with ready-to-eat foods and requires the use of gloves or utensils whenever these foods are handled. The law has been met with controversy, for sure. Sushi chefs and bartenders, especially, find it restricting to their trade, where touching food with bare hands is an essential part of the art of sushi making, and adding a twist to a martini with gloved hands seems overkill.
If local health authorities were hoping to improve food safety, they might be barking up the wrong tree. Gloves don't necessarily make for safer food handling. They might make workers less likely to remember to wash their hands, increasing the possibility of cross contamination in the kitchen; after all, if a worker is washing lettuce and needs to grab raw meat right before assembling a salad, that's three pairs of gloves in the course of 10 minutes... if he's vigilant about changing them. In high-volume kitchens, not only could this easily slip the mind of a well-meaning worker, but the amount of disposable gloves tossed in the trash by the end of the day could be mind-boggling.
In fact, food outbreaks don't often originate in the kitchen. When it comes to foodborne illnesses, a majority of the problems start before the food ever reaches a restaurant.
The FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) Plan for Program Priorities, 2013-2014 makes no mention of food handling in restaurants; the plan instead focuses on the safe manufacturing and transporting of food. When you look at the CDC's information of how food becomes contaminated, food handling by restaurant workers is but a small factor in a long list of causes that mostly center around in-the-field processing of fruits and vegetables and the improper storage, preparation, and cooking of meats.
According to an article from Food Safety News in 2010, the warm, sweaty environment inside a glove is an ideal breeding ground for microbial proliferation, which makes even the best gloves inadequate compared to regular, thorough hand washing and dry, clean hands.
No one argues that food safety is of utmost importance. But if California truly wanted to solve the state's food safety problems, perhaps it should start with legislating changes at the root level — increased oversight on the production and processing of food, or mandates on paid sick leave to encourage sick workers to stay home. Gloves or not, I definitely don't want a worker with a head cold to sneeze into his hand and then prepare my plate. And I definitely don't think we should add to the plastic waste problem after we finally did away with one part of it.