Now more than ever in this Covid-19 world, we’re likely to see personal protective equipment (PPE) as a part of our dining experience. Whether we’re eating in or taking away, staff in both front of house and back of house roles are almost certainly wearing gloves. The question is, should we be reassured by this?
It turns out the question of gloves in food handling and food safety is a much-debated issue with passionate arguments on both sides. At first glance, it is easy to be reassured by the presence of a physical barrier between someone’s hands and something that’s about to go into our mouths, but as the evidence shows us; it’s just not that simple.
According to a study in 2010 (1), glove-wearing can actually, “create a false sense of security,” where staff who aren’t properly trained in their use can actually increase the incidence of contamination when gloves are worn. This can be as a result of:
Workflow contamination (such as handling raw meat prior to cooking then subsequently handling ingredients that will be served raw).
Handling money with the same gloves that are used for food preparation.
Opening a door and then handling food.
Additionally, wearing gloves has been shown to reduce the frequency of hand washing (2) and provide the ideal warm, moist conditions against the skin for bacteria to thrive. Food handling gloves are necessarily single-use, generating considerable amounts of waste and landfill. Lastly, the materials used to make the gloves matter. Some people are allergic to latex (3), and vinyl gloves contain potentially carcinogenic materials such as phthalates and their manufacture releases toxic dioxins into the atmosphere.
Gloves don’t equal clean, so is it time to bin those gloves and not look back? Well, not quite.
Enter nitrile gloves. Tough, less likely to cause allergies than latex, biodegradable and HACCP approved for food handling, they are the obvious choice for food safety applications despite their higher price tag. After all, there is a very real cost to financial bottom line and business reputation in the aftermath of a contamination event.
What about the case for ditching gloves and relying on handwashing?
Nobody disputes that hand washing is a critical component of safe food handling. The most implicated source of food poisoning in kitchens, whether in our homes or our businesses, is bacterial or viral contamination, and the culprit? Our hands (5).
It’s hardly surprising that our hands play host to such undesirables as Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus given that these can both be found inside the human body and we can’t seem to resist the temptation to touch ourselves when preparing food. In fact, studies show the average person touches their face approximately 23 times per hour (6). This is a staggering number of opportunities for these contaminants to make their way from us onto the food we are preparing for others.
Providing proper training in how to wash your hands seems unnecessary until you learn that 90% of people don’t wash their hands properly after handling raw chicken (7). Before we start thinking that professional food handlers would certainly do better; the Centers for Disease Control found that only 1 in 4 food handlers washed their hands after preparing raw meat and a mere 1 in 10 washed them after touching their face or body (4).
Here are some key points on effective hand washing from Food Standards Australia New Zealand:
There should be a dedicated sink used for handwashing.
Wet hands under warm running water.
Lather with soap for 15 seconds, scrubbing fingers, palms, wrists, back of hands and under nails.
Rinse hands under warm running water.
Don’t turn off taps with your hands, use your elbow or a paper towel.
Thoroughly dry your hands with a single-use towel.
Proper handwashing and knowing when you need to wash your hands are proven to reduce incidences of food contamination (8).
No matter the size of the business, the fact remains that food safety education is absolutely paramount. By providing a clear, consistent messaging on how and when to wash hands, how and when to wear gloves, we are making an investment in ourselves, our staff and our business.
Making gloves available in the workplace is not enough.
Having access to handwashing facilities is not enough.
Only the combination of effective hand washing and proper donning and doffing of gloves provides the highest standard of food safety to the most important people in your business: your customers.
“Factors Related to Food Worker Hand Hygiene Practices,” (2010) Journal of Food Protection, Vol. 70, No. 3, pp 661-666.
“Outbreaks where food workers have been implicated in the spread of foodborne disease. Part 8. Gloves as barriers to prevent contamination of food by workers,” (2010) Journal of Food Protection, Vol 73, No. 9, pp.1672-73.
“Latex glove use by food handlers: the case for nonlatex gloves,” (2008) Journal of Food Protection, Vol. 71, No. 11, pp. 2334-8.
“Food Worker Handwashing in Restaurants – Key Takeaways from 4 Food Safety Reports” (2020) Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/ehsnet/plain_language/food-worker-handwashing-in-restaurants.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fnceh%2Fehs%2Fehsnet%2Fplain_language%2Ffood-worker-handwashing-food-preparation.htm 14th November 2020.
“Hand Washing is Critical to Food Safety,” Retrieved from: https://hygienefoodsafety.org/hand-washing-critical-food-safety/ 14th November 2020.
“Face touching: a frequent habit that has implications for hand hygiene,” (2015) American Journal of Infection Control, Vol. 43, No. 2, pp.112-4.
“Most people don’t wash their hands properly – here’s how it should be done,” (2019) The Conversation, Retrieved from:https://theconversation.com/most-people-dont-wash-their-hands-properly-heres-how-it-should-be-done-125330 14th November 2020.