In recent weeks, the California State Assembly approved a seemingly complete reversal of food safety legislation that was enacted earlier this year. Assembly Bill 2130, proposed by Assemblymember Dr. Richard Pan, head of the California Assembly Health Committee, would repeal language in the state health code that requires restaurant employees and bartenders to wear gloves when handling food that is about to be served, sometimes referred to as “ready-to-eat-food.” While the requisite use of gloves would appear to promote safer handling of food to better prevent foodborne illnesses, AB 2130 is a smart step towards refocusing the conversation about food safety to more effective legislation that ensures the public’s ongoing health and safety.
According to the state health code signed into effect back in January, cooks and bartenders must wear disposable gloves or use utensils when handling ready-to-eat food, or anything that won’t be cooked or reheated before it goes to the customers. This is just part of a larger, nationwide trend of similar legislation intended to prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses at restaurants. In theory, requiring gloves would be an effective defense against preventable diseases. Objections from both restaurateurs and health experts alike, however, have illuminated how this mandate may not be the best means to that end.
From sushi chefs to bartenders, many in the food service industry point out that the new legislation is an unsustainable practice that impairs food preparation and is not effective at preventing the transmission of harmful pathogens.
Health experts agree. Wearing gloves and using utensils does limit contact with food, but unless gloves are changed frequently the potential for harm may actually be increased. The possibility of cross-contamination while using gloves remains. Health experts have also pointed out that gloves can often serve as the perfect breeding ground for certain strains of bacteria if not properly disposed of after a certain amount of usage. Further, if an employee comes in sick, using gloves will do little to stop the spread of germs.
Perhaps even more problematic is the portion of the food safety legislation that allows for exemptions. The language leaves lots of questions about what constitutes an exemption and what doesn’t, as well as questions as to how to enforce the mandate. Because of this confusion, while some counties are attempting to interpret the legislation and grant certain exemptions, other county health departments are simply applying a strict blanket interpretation of the mandate. It is unclear how Los Angeles County health officials will enforce the glove policy when it is implemented in 2015.
At the Los Angeles County Association of Environmental Health Specialists, we want to make sure that diners stay healthy by ensuring that the restaurants, cafes and fast food establishments throughout Los Angeles County incorporate effective food safety practices. Our licensed and trained health and safety experts proactively work in communities to evaluate and ensure proper food preparation techniques. Many of you may already rely on us when choosing where to eat, as we are responsible for the letter grades that hang in the windows of food establishments throughout the County.
While we agree that steps should be taken to improve overall food safety, we feel that the passage of AB 2130 will help direct the discourse towards the most effective methods of preventing foodborne illnesses. The use of gloves will be too easily relied upon as a simple fix, when in reality significant risk of food contamination remains and may even be heightened. Ultimately, nothing can replace the effectiveness of proper hand washing and diverting the emphasis away from that is harmful to the public’s health. The language of the existing legislation also makes our job of assessing food safety more difficult, further increasing the potential for food safety health hazards. Instead of just focusing on the use of gloves as the end-all, we should take a more comprehensive look at the entire process of food preparation and service, and develop clear solutions that keep all Angelenos safe and healthy.
George Fee is the Secretary of the Board of the Directors of the Los Angeles County Association of Environmental Health Specialists.