Are California Employees Ready for No-Contact Rule on Ready-to-Eat Foods?

Employees at retail food facilities in California are prohibited from coming in direct contact with exposed, ready-to-eat food, due to a January 1 update to the California Retail Food Code (CalCode). Previously, restaurant workers were directed by the CalCode to “minimize” bare hand and arm contact with ready-to-eat food. Restaurants will have until July 1 to comply with the change to allow local health authorities time to get up to speed for enforcement.

The updated code says food employees “shall not contact exposed, ready-to-eat food with their bare hands and shall use suitable utensils such as deli tissue, spatulas, tongs, single-use gloves, or dispensing equipment.”

The change was not unexpected. “It does align with the federal code and with what a lot of other states are doing,” says Angelica Pappas, communications manager for the California Restaurant Association. “In fact, most other states have rules that are just as stringent or even more so. Multistate operators who were already used to doing this in other states were better prepared than independent restaurants, which are probably the most concerned about compliance.”

Others have expressed concerns, however, with some chefs characterizing the new rule as a “glove regulation” that will interfere with delicate procedures such as sushi preparation.

“We don’t refer to it in terms of a ‘glove requirement’ because there are other options to prevent contact,” Pappas says. “It’s not necessarily going to lead to widespread new glove usage and the issues that come along with that.”

Legislators may still make refinements to the law. The deadline for introduction of bills containing “cleanup language” is Feb. 21, says Pappas.

Some aspects of the regulation are still unclear, such as how exemptions will be granted. Enforcement will be handled by local health departments, and each will have to “develop guidelines and terms for exemptions for themselves,” says Pappas.

“The reason we pushed for the soft rollout, postponing the enforcement deadline from January 1 to July 1, is because the local health departments weren’t necessarily prepared for that process at the beginning of the year, and restaurants needed time to get educated on the law,” she says. “We haven’t been able to determine—and I think there’s no answer because nobody knows—whether a local jurisdiction, such as Los Angeles County, can exempt all bars, or whether each bar will have to get an exemption one by one. Or maybe something like that can be done on a widespread basis on the state level. Nothing has been formally proposed yet.”


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