The gloves are off! But they should be on, says the state of California. Many chefs are up in arms about having to wear gloves while cooking, in accordance with a new food safety law that goes into effect over the next six months.
The new law bans bare-handed contact with many kinds of foods, but some chefs say the law is confusing, ineffective, bad for the environment and can compromise a final dish.
"The band-aid of a blanket glove regulation is potentially dangerous," says Neal Fraser, chef-owner of BLD restaurant and Fritzi Dog. "People get into the tendency to not wash their hands. And environmentally it's very unfriendly. It's funny that at the same time L.A. institutes a plastic bag ban, there's this."
Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that made changes to the California Retail Food Code in an effort to curtail foodborne illnesses, and those changes include a law that says "food employees shall not contact exposed, ready-to-eat food with their bare hands."
That means cooks must wear single-use gloves or use utensils when handling food such as sushi, bread, fresh fruit and vegetables and any cooked components of dishes that will be plated for customers.
"For the most part I use gloves throughout my whole preparation process," said Niki Nakayama, the chef of N/naka who makes sushi as part of her Japanese kaiseki-like meals, "and I have no problem wearing gloves for plating something. I'm on the fence about the cleanliness of gloves all the time."
But most important for her, "making sushi is incredibly hard to do with gloves on. No. 1, the rice is so sticky, the rice would stick to the gloves undoubtedly. Plus you lose that sense of feel, which is everything in sushi making. You have to know exactly the right pressure to put on ingredients. Wearing a glove would hurt the product."
Others have welcomed the new regulations. "I think it's a good thing," said Mary C. Fitzgerald of Safe & Sound food safety consultants. "It both raises awareness and raises the bar that everyone’s responsible to prevent foodborne illness."
The use of gloves and utensils during cooking was formerly a suggestion in the food safety code and is now a requirement. So "I don't think [the law] was unexpected," said Angelica Pappas, a spokeswoman for the California Restaurant Assn. "Other states have similar rules, and a lot of restaurants are already practicing this, especially the bigger companies and multi-chain operators. It wasn't anything unforeseen."
But it is also confusing. "A law intended to regulate employees at a Subway is now being applied to fine dining, which operates at a different capacity with a different approach to training and a different caliber of employees," said Jordan R. Bernstein, an attorney at Michelman & Robinson who provides general counsel for restaurant clients and recently notified them of the new law.
"I've spoken to some chefs that I work with who have a lot of questions," Bernstein said. "They're restaurant managers and operators who have many employees contacting food and have been doing it in a certain manner for a long time, and -- other than 'everybody wear gloves' -- don't know how to comply with the new law."
Food safety experts note that there are guidelines for using gloves properly, and the CRA pushed for a six-month rollout so restaurants would have time to become informed and comply.
Restaurants can apply for an exemption by fulfilling strict requirements for training and written guidelines. But it's not clear how the Los Angeles County health department will enforce the new regulations or how it would allot exemptions. No one at the health department was available for comment late Friday.
"When I heard about it, I thought, 'No, you're joking.' This is terrible," said Roxana Jullapat, pastry chef at Cooks County.
"Who's saying gloves can't cause cross-contamination or can't get dirty? Outside or inside. Nothing good is happening in there where it's warm and sweaty. And I bet it’s three months before a glove shows up in a salad."