Nosh Pit

The Nosh Pit: Getting a grip on the potential ‘glove law’ repeal

When it comes to shocking reversals, few stories rival that of California’s so-called “glove law.”

On Jan. 1, ours became the latest state to enact a law that prohibits bare-handed contact with ready-to-eat foods – basically anything that won’t be cooked before it’s served to customers. That means your favorite sushi chef must sport latex-covered hands like a dental hygienist, or use other crafty methods, while assembling those spicy tuna rolls.

But then, a dramatic change of heart.

Assemblyman Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, author of the bill that became the glove law, called for its repeal in February after an avalanche of complaints from chefs, restaurant owners and bartenders, who consider it ineffective and costly.

Pan, who also serves as chairman of the Assembly’s health committee, is now proposing AB 2130, an emergency measure that would restore pre-2014 regulations, essentially minimizing bare-handed contact with plate-ready foods instead of banning it. The bill passed unanimously from the health committee on March 25 and is on track to be considered on the Assembly floor.

“It’s not about whether there are gloves or not, it should be about whether the local business and the health inspector have worked together to create a safe environment for the customer,” said Pan in a statement introducing AB 2130.

Confused about the new law and its potential repeal? Don’t worry. We’re here to give you a (plastic-shrouded) hand. Here are some key points to consider as AB 2130 continues to work its way through the Capitol.

What prompted this no-bare-hands-contact law, anyway?

Public health officials have encouraged such laws to reduce the prevalence of food-borne illnesses.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48 million people are sickened annually by food poisoning. A 2002 study by the CDC found that restaurant employees were a contributing factor to 65 percent of food-borne illness outbreaks. Sacramento County received 293 complaints of food-borne illness in 2013, and averages between 250 and 350 complaints annually.

Outbreaks of norovirus, a highly contagious stomach virus that causes vomiting, diarrhea and nausea, continue to make headlines, whether on cruise ships or at Noma, the two-Michelin-starred Copenhagen restaurant known as one of the world’s best eateries. Closer to home, midtown’s Mulvaney’s B&L was the source of a 2013 norovirus outbreak that sickened more than 130 people, including diners and staff.

What does the current law prohibit in terms of handling food?

The passage of Pan’s AB 1252 didn’t necessarily mandate the use of gloves by kitchen workers. It means that ready-to-eat foods – those that have been cooked or can be served immediately (think bread, fruit, deli meat, etc.) – can’t be touched by human skin.

It’s OK for a chef to go gloveless when slapping a raw burger patty on a grill. But bare hands touching a cooked burger, bun and veggies would be cause for a violation, no matter how many times those hands may have been washed. This also means a bartender shouldn’t squeeze a lemon into a cocktail, or add a garnish, without wearing gloves or using other tools.

California was among the few states that still allowed bare-hands contact with ready-to-eat foods until AB 1252 was passed. Similar laws are on the books in dozens of states, including New York and Texas. A comparable measure was proposed by the Oregon Health Authority in 2012, but ultimately dismissed after food experts raised complaints about the law creating a false sense of cleanliness.

What other tools are chefs using to comply with the law?

Tongs, tweezers and spatulas are all fair game with handling ready-to-eat foods – just as long as there’s no skin-to-food contact. Some sushi chefs at Mikuni have used Saran Wrap while making sushi rolls so they don’t break code.

Even if the current law remains on the books, restaurants have a grace period for violations that ends June 30. After that, not using gloves, tweezers and other kitchen tools could cause penalization by the health department.

Is my food going to taste like plastic or powder if it’s been handled by gloves?

Probably not. Many gloves designed for food service are powder-free, or the powder’s contained inside the gloves.

Are gloves and stricter regulations helping win the fight against food-borne illness?

Food-borne illness trends have remained flat or worsened in recent years, despite the prevalence of no-bare-hands contact laws.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, rates of E. coli, listeria and salmonella stayed flat in 2012, compared to 2006 through 2008. Infections of vibrio, a bacteria commonly found in undercooked fish, rose 43 percent in the same study.

Some research, including studies published in the Journal of Food Protection, suggest gloves by themselves can’t adequately protect against food contamination and may even increase risky behavior in food handlers.

Why are California chefs so against the law?

Backlash to the law came swiftly, with more than 18,000 supporters signing petitions asking for its repeal, or to exempt bartenders. After all, the Golden State doubles as a home base for the national “farm-to-fork” movement, which emphasizes the closest connections possible to food, both in its sourcing and preparation.

As Charlotte Biltekoff, a professor of food science technology at UC Davis, told Food Safety News: “Pleasure depends on a direct sensual connection to food – exactly the kind of connection that rubber gloves threaten.”

Still, the state’s chefs came late with their opposition. The bill was introduced in February 2013, but unlike their lobbying against a foie gras ban, chefs mostly remained silent until AB 1252 became law. The California Restaurant Association declined to take a side, and the bill (part of a broader food-safety code package) passed through the Assembly without opposition.

What kind of economic effect is the law having on local restaurants?

Restaurant profit margins are notoriously slim, averaging 3 to 5 percent, according the National Restaurant Association. Stocking up on single-use gloves is already adding to operating costs.

Over at Grange, the downtown restaurant known for its fierce farm-to-fork ethos, chef Oliver Ridgeway estimates the gloves add another $300 in restaurant costs per month. And with the drought hiking food prices, he says, Sacramento diners will likely see the costs in spiking menu prices if the law isn’t repealed.