California’s “Glove Law” Stirs the Pot Amongst Chefs and Bartenders

By: Adia Sykes

At the beginning of 2014 new legislation went into effect in California that requires food workers to wear gloves during various stages of food preparation. Needless to say, these new laws were not well received throughout the California restaurant community. However, this new requirement was least palatable among the likes of bartenders and sushi chefs, whose work involves almost constant contact with both raw and ready-to-eat food. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times chef Nancy Silverton of Osteria Mozza said: “It’s very important to me to be able to handle my ingredients with my bare hand…It helps me when I construct my dishes, just like a sculptor touches clay.” With backlash from the restaurant community it’s no surprise that discussions of repealing this new legislation followed soon after its implementation.

Assembly bill 1252 was added section 113961 to the California Retail Food Code on January 1, 2014. It banned restaurant workers in California from handling ready-to-eat food with bare hands, making gloves and/or utensils mandatory when handling ready-to-eat foods. The additions read as follows:

(a) Food employees shall wash their hands in accordance with the provisions established in Section 113953.3.

(b) Except when washing fruits and vegetables, as specified in Section 113992 or as specified in subdivisions (e) and (f), 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.

(c) Food employees shall minimize bare hand and arm contact with exposed food that is not in a ready-to-eat form.

Though this addition made waves in the California restaurant community, on a national level this sort of regulation was nothing new. California was actually a latecomer to the table of 41 states that already had a version of this law in place. Legislation such as this was originally implemented in an attempt to create a more sanitary food environment. Using bare hands to handle and prepare food has been linked to food-borne illness in the United States, where one in six people are projected to get sick from such illnesses every year. As a way to combat this statistic, laws prohibiting the barehanded touching of foods, especially raw foods, were quickly adopted in many states. These additions to the California Retail Food Code would have had a soft rollout for a period of six months after the start of the year, giving restaurants ample time to take the necessary measures to assure that their facilities would be in compliance. After this period (until July 2014), restaurants found in violation would be given only a warning. The new piece of legislation, however, did not outline what sanctions would be imposed on those who violated the law.

These additions also provide an opportunity for restaurants to apply for an exemption to these rules. The only caveat is that a restaurant must prove that it is not serving a “highly susceptible population” (and obtain approval from the local health department). Applications for this exemption included identification of the following: lists of food touched by bare hands, documentation proving that employees have been trained in proper food handling and hand washing, methods of preventing cross-contamination, and finally a written health plan and further documentation that employees will use the preventative measures.

The additions to the California Retail Food Code were met by fierce opposition from chefs and bartenders alike, as seen above in the Nancy Silverton interview. In February of this year a petition by bartenders wanting to be exempt from this “disposable glove law” gathered 11,000 signatures and caught the attention of Dr. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento). After these couple months of pressure from the California restaurant and bar community, the state’s Assembly Health committee unanimously voted at the end of March to repeal and revisit these regulations. More so than the backlash Section 113961 has received, this case calls into question policy implementation and its overall effectiveness. As Pan said in a statement released after talk of repealing Section 113961 arose: “It’s not about whether there are gloves or not, it should be about whether the locals business and the health inspector have worked together to create a safe environment for the customer.” Since the goal of these additions is to combat the spread of food-borne illness caused by barehanded handling of food, Pan’s statement is evidence enough that legislation cannot be the sole solution to this problem. Assembly bill 1252, which added these regulations, is an example of a piece of legislation that lacked collaborative efforts from policy makers, restaurant personnel, and those who would be charged with enforcing such legislation.