by Gabriella Agostinelli
Last January, California became the 42nd state in America to enact a law prohibiting bare-hands contact with ready-to-eat foods and beverages. Under the law, human skin cannot touch anything that has been cooked or can be served immediately, such as bread, fruit, deli meat, sushi, and cocktail garnishes. In the face of major opposition to the new law, the State Assembly’s Health Committee – the very committee that proposed the law – has now unanimously voted for the law’s repeal. A new bill, which would restore the health code to its previous standards, is now on track to be considered on the Assembly floor.
California had strong public policy concerns when enacting the law. Nearly 1 in 6 Americans (48 million people) are sickened annually by food poisoning. A new study released this month also indicates Americans are twice as likely to get food poisoning from food prepared at a restaurant than from food prepared at home.
Despite lawmakers’ good intentions, the California food and beverage service industry has been swift to point out the law’s many impracticalities. Under the law, you can throw a steak on the grill barehanded, but you better glove-up when plating the cooked meat. Want some lime or ice in your cocktail? Give your bartender time to grab some latex, tweezers, or other kitchen tools first. And don’t forget: every time a bartender takes your money, she will need to replace her gloves. Every time a bartender grabs a glass you have sipped from, it becomes “contaminated” and she will once again need to change her gloves. Sushi chefs, notorious for their reliance on “touch” when crafting seafood delicacies, contend that wearing gloves interferes with this crucial sense. Beyond the inconvenience of wearing and replacing gloves, critics also suggest wearing gloves will affect the taste of food and beverages. (Think: the essence of latex and powder in your mojito.)
Since January 1, more than 18,000 individuals have signed petitions asking for the law’s repeal or to exempt bartenders from the law. Opponents of the law condemn the cost and environmental impact of buying and disposing of millions of latex gloves annually. They also argue that glove use presents a risk of cross-contamination, that the law affords inconsistent exemptions, and that it may create a false sense of security.
The story of California’s glove law demonstrates that, when creating food law in the name of public safety, legislators may not give due attention to practical concerns and costs to industry. It is encouraging that the Legislature is now considering these practical issues.