Randall Benton / rbenton@sacbee.com

Sushi chef Kei Sugimoto wears rubber gloves at Kru in Sacramento. A lawmaker is seeking to overturn his own bill requiring gloves.

California law would let gloves come off for bars and restaurants

Published: Friday, Feb. 28, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Sunday, Apr. 6, 2014 - 9:53 am

Just months after Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a measure compelling bartenders and chefs to don gloves when handling ready-to-eat food, the bill’s author has responded to a food industry uproar by unveiling an effort to undo the change.

“It didn’t sound that dissimilar to the existing law, which said that we should minimize hand contact and that there should be good hand-washing procedures,” said Assemblyman Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, who wrote the bill.

But soon after it passed, Pan said, “we started hearing from local restaurants, smaller restaurants, and also bartenders about the impact it would have on them.”

The glove guideline was mixed into a broader food safety code package that sailed to Brown’s desk with no opposition (among other things, the overall bill contemplated that ancient riddle of what, exactly, goes into a hot dog). Strictly speaking, the bill doesn’t require gloves. Rather, it prohibits bare-handed contact with foods that are ready to eat.

Local health departments are allowed to pass rules that would allow restaurants to ditch the gloves in favor of comparable safety measures, but that process promises to be more complex and protracted than supporters anticipated. In the meantime, businesses have been complaining loudly.

In response to the backlash, Pan has introduced a bill that would restore the former status quo. The legislation is an urgency measure, which means it would go into effect immediately if legislators can conjure two-thirds votes. Pan hopes to push it through before the glove requirement takes full effect in June (for now, violating the rule results only in a warning).

“Everyone wants to be sure people don’t get sick from eating food at a restaurant or bar,” Pan said, but “clearly what we did last year is not working appropriately.”

Complaints about the new law have simmered at restaurants and bars, with chefs and owners saying the rule would require employees to constantly change gloves – an imperative that’s both time-consuming and costly – without necessarily making customers safer.

Food workers already are supposed to wash their hands regularly. But the new rule poses a risk that preparers will become complacent, swapping frequent hand washing for a pair of gloves that can grow just as dirty as a pair of hands, said Matt Masera, executive chef of the newly opened vegetarian restaurant Mother in downtown Sacramento.

Beyond the risk of eroding food safety, Masera said denying cooks the ability to handle food directly will diminish deliciousness.

“We use coarse salt because we can feel it when we pick it up. With gloves it’s hard to know if you’re under-salting or over-salting,” Masera said. “A lot of cooking you use your senses, so you’re eliminating touch,” he added.

His point was on display during a recent lunch hour at Kru, an upscale sushi restaurant in midtown Sacramento. Wearing gloves to prepare for the rule becoming mandatory in June, a row of sushi chefs swiftly pared the skin from whole fishes, sliced coral hunks of salmon into bite-sized chunks and plated ribbons of ginger. The gloves have taken some getting used to.

“It’s difficult to work with these,” said Kei Sugimoto, wiggling fingers wrapped in gloves that sat loosely on his hands. “When I touch the fish I can notice, is it good or is it bad? That feeling is very important.”

Bar owners warn about hamstringing mixologists accustomed to pouring cocktails that require squeezing oils out of lemon and orange peels or slapping the flavor out of a mint sprig. Gloved hands can encumber bartenders used to working quickly, they say, making them more likely to break glasses as they rush to serve thirsty patrons. They also mention the smell.

“Not one person I work with or know of my peers believes that this is a feasible rule,” said Matt Nurge, part owner of Red Rabbit bar and restaurant in midtown. “I really don’t want you to put your nose in (a cocktail) and smell talcum powder and latex,” he added.

Just as the bill enshrining the glove requirement passed without any pushback , no one has yet opposed Pan’s follow-up bill. The California Restaurant Association released a statement backing the effort. Also supporting a review of the bare-hands rule, if not a full repeal, is the California Association of Environmental Health Administrators, a coalition of frontline local health agencies that backed last year’s bill.

“We still believe on balance that the policy is good, but we do support additional review of the issue,” said Justin Malan, the organization’s executive director.

Part of the underlying intention of last year’s bill was bringing California in line with federal recommendations. Most of the country has moved in a similar direction, with 43 states having passed some sort of law governing bare-handed contact with immediately edible food.

Many national restaurant chains have already enacted stricter rules, Malan said, accommodating the fact that state rules vary and opting to hew to higher standards. But for smaller California-exclusive businesses, he said, complying with the rules around bare-handed food contact can be a burden.

“Where we’re seeing concern is to a large extent your high end, highly aesthetic food service providers and some of your more budget food providers where you’re looking just at the cost,” Malan said.

Restaurants small and large are governed by the California Retail Food Code, and Pan said he intends to broadly reassess California’s food safety rules this year. But first, he wants to take the gloves off.

“Certainly we shouldn’t punish our restaurants and bars,” Pan said, “by leaving that in place while this discussion’s happening.”

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.

Read more articles by Jeremy B. White

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