To glove, or not to glove, that is the question. It’s a debate that has raged in foodservice circles for years and centers on the question of whether hand washing alone is effective in preventing foodborne illness.
One side believes that hand washing is sufficient. The other side believes that proper hand washing is not being enforced and that a barrier, such as a single-use glove or utensil, is required to protect the food. Unfortunately, it’s a circular argument. Barriers would not be needed if proper hand washing took place. But, proper hand washing is not being consistently practiced, so other barriers are needed. However, one common issue remains on both sides: training. With a combination of training on proper hand washing techniques and training on the proper use of disposable gloves and other barriers, the goal of preventing foodborne illness can be more easily reached.
In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) takes this approach one step further in the 2009 FDA Food Code, which states that employees may not contact ready-to-eat foods with bare hands, except when washing fruits and vegetables and when otherwise approved. The purpose of this rule is to prevent restroom germs, referred to as fecal-oral pathogens by the FDA, from getting into food. These restroom germs include E. coli, Staphylococcus, Hepatitis A, Norovirus, Giardia, and Shigella and can be carried to food by hands that are not properly washed after using the restroom. The FDA believes that a combination of three factors will give the best result in stopping this transmission: proper hand washing, a barrier to bare hand contact with ready-to-eat foods, and exclusion of ill employees from food preparation areas.
So, what reasons led the FDA to their position on this issue of handwashing and additional necessary barriers? There are 2 major pieces of evidence that have led to this cautious approach to hand sanitation. First, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report that hands are the most common way that germs, or "restroom pathogens" are spread. Second, illness can occur by passing on a very small number of germs, which hand washing alone does not remove from hands. Scientific tests have shown that residual bacteria exists on hands after routine handwashing that may be enough to cause illness if then transferred to foods or food contact surfaces. To combat this limitation with hand washing, the FDA encourages the use of a barrier to direct hand contact with foods. Utensils, such as spoons, scoops, and tongs, are a common and convenient barrier to use. In some instances, deli tissues can be used. Perhaps the most controversial barrier is a single use, disposable glove. As a last precaution, ill employees should not be allowed to work with foods and, ideally, should be sent home to recover from their illness.
However, the FDA does recognize that there are situations where a barrier is not practical and they have outlined guidelines for this as well. In many jurisdictions, if allowed, the operator may be granted a variance and adopt a "no bare contact policy" by demonstrating how food will be kept safe, and by providing their health inspector with a written plan. The plan must outline the critical tasks where contamination of food is most likely and provide procedures for each of these tasks to limit contamination from bare hands. These factors include double hand washing procedures, the use of nail brushes, and the use of an FDA approved hand sanitizer. Documentation must also show that all employees have been trained in these methods and that monitoring and verification of these procedures are occurring. Lastly, the FDA lists other acceptable methods for preventing the spread of foodborne illness that should be considered. These factors include vaccinations, and motivation for ill employees not to work, i.e. paid sick time.
Among all these guidelines, the use of single use gloves has been at the center of many heated debates.
Coming Soon! Part 2 of "Gloves! The Controversy Continues"
Paul McGinnis is the VP of Marketing for Ecolab's Food Safety Specialties division (formerly Daydots). He is an author and a speaker, and currently serves as editor-in-chief of Food Safety Solutions magazine.