A food preparation worker washes her hands and puts on gloves. She needs to make chicken salad. She starts by seasoning the poultry pieces, rubbing them with salt, pepper and herbs, and then spreads them out in a pan for steaming. Wearing the same pair of gloves, she dices celery and onions. She makes the dressing. Finally, she cuts up the cooked chicken, mixes the salad and packs it away, ready to sell.
A line cook with gloves on his freshly washed hands gets an order for a hamburger, grabs the raw patty from the refrigerator and slaps it on the grill. Once the burger is cooked, he picks up a bun and plates up the burger with lettuce, tomato and fries — all without pulling on a new pair.
In my more than 35 years in the food business as a chef and consultant, I have seen a lot of scary things. And those common scenes are among them.
I’ve been in and out of the kitchens in hotels and independent restaurants, of caterers and commissaries. These days, food handlers are expected to wear gloves especially when they’re working in public view. However, those gloves are good only if the hands they are covering are clean. To my mind, gloves are problematic; people equate them with food safety. (Take the accompanying poll.)
According to a 2007 study in the Journal of Food Protection, “Hand washing and glove use were also related to each other — hand washing was less likely to occur with activities in which gloves were worn.” A 2010 study in the same journal concludes, “Glove use can create a false sense of security, resulting in more high-risk behaviors that can lead to cross-contamination when employees are not adequately trained.” Also in the report: “Occlusion of the skin during long-term glove use in food operations creates the warm, moist conditions necessary for microbial proliferation and can increase pathogen transfer onto foods through leaks or exposed skin or during glove removal.” In other words, just wearing gloves can create dangerous conditions.
With the use of food-safe gloves of various materials, we have created a new set of problems as well: the huge waste of resources in producing and disposing of billions of pairs every year. It’s money that could be spent on kitchen improvements such as providing automatic or foot pedal-operated hand sinks and enough time for workers to wash their hands a reasonable number of times per day. People may be allergic to gloves, especially those made from latex, while potentially carcinogenic and toxic materials are used in making certain types of gloves.
Although there are some very good arguments to be made for wearing gloves in certain circumstances, such as when mixing a batch of meatballs and when workers have a wound on their hands, we should reevaluate the automatic and ubiquitous usage.
“People put those darn gloves on and they think they’re protected,” says Denise Korniewicz, dean of the college of nursing at the University of North Dakota and an expert on the efficacy of gloves. “The best way to prevent the transmission of bacteria, virus or other bug is to wash hands thoroughly, adhering to the protocols that we know work. When evaluating food safety, it’s not the gloves I observe; rather it’s what workers are doing with their hands, like using the phone or wiping their nose.”