Law Prohibiting Bare Hand Contact with Food Repealed in California

A California law that would have prohibited employees at retail food facilities and bars from coming into direct contact with exposed, ready-to-eat food was repealed by the California Legislature only days before local health agencies were expected to start enforcing the new rule on July 1.

The update to the California Retail Food Code, passed in January, would have prohibited bare hand contact with food, and it mandated the use of utensils such as deli tissue, spatulas, tongs, single-use gloves, or dispensing equipment. With the repeal, the food code “will now, once again, simply require food employees to minimize bare hand contact, as opposed to prohibiting bare hand contact,” according to the California Restaurant Association (CRA).

Angela Pappas, CRA communications manager, says that the one-word change in the food code from “minimize” to “prohibit” had been the significant problem among restaurants and bars throughout the state. “It became very apparent across the board…that we can’t have a one-size-fits-all rule.” The CRA had expected an exemption process to be spearheaded at the local level, but that process did not begin, she says.

A successful petition drive on called on the California Health Department to repeal the new law. One petition, initiated by bartender Josh Miller of Alameda, Calif., called for an exemption for bartenders and chefs from having to wear disposable gloves. According to the petition, bartenders continually wash their hands throughout their shifts. Requiring them to wear disposable gloves would be “creating a mountain of waste and potentially fostering more germ transfer because wearers of gloves are less likely to change them after making drinks and handling money.”

Research published in the Journal of Food Protection in 2010 found that glove use can create a false sense of security among food workers, leading to more high-risk behaviors and eventual cross-contamination if employees are not adequately trained about their safe use. If used improperly, gloves can become a source of contamination. When there is occlusion of the skin during long-term glove use, a warm and moist environment is created, leading to microbial growth and pathogen transfer onto foods through leaks or exposed skin or during removal of the gloves. 

Pappas says she expects the conversation about this issue to continue at some point, but there is no timetable for that discussion. She says that any further changes in the code should focus on what makes sense for different segments of the industry, exemptions that should be made, and the scientific research about food safety issues.


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