Friday, June 24, 2011

Gloves don't make you bombproof

This week, my wife watched a professional catering company setting out a room for conference meals.

One of the girls was setting out plates with her bare hands.  She then returned to the room with plastic wrapped bananas on a pile of plates.  She was wearing one plastic glove and contrived to remove the plastic wrap from the bananas with the ungloved hand.  She then carefully separated the individual bananas using the gloved hand.

What did this achieve?  I don't have a major problem with the plates being set out with bare hands, provided she washed her hands before she started.  The wrapped bananas were in contact with the plates, so anything on the plastic wrap might also be transferred to the plates.  Unless the girl was a part-time juggler, it's likely that she touched the banana skins with her bare hand as well as with the gloved one.  But people don't eat the skins and anyway, how many hands had touched the skins during harvesting and transport?

Many years ago, when I first started teaching food microbiology, O.P Snyder used to write regularly about the hazards associated with handling food with bare hands or with gloves.  He argued that the use of clean hands was less hazardous than unchanged gloves.  The critical words here are "clean hands".

There is no doubt that contamination can be transferred by manual handling of food.  Some regulatory authorities require that food handlers wear gloves and do not permit contact between bare hands and ready-to-eat foods.

However, simple observation in kitchens and service areas show that many food handlers do not know how to use gloves to improve food safety.  Chefs often use their fingers to assemble food; counter staff handle food while wearing gloves and then clean the counters before going back to handling food without changing the gloves.  When gloves are changed, are the hands washed?  Usually not, so hands that have become sweaty inside the gloves are then used to put on the fresh gloves and must inevitably transfer some bacteria to the new gloves.

Dirty gloves are just as dirty as dirty hands.  Wearing gloves does not make you bombproof - you have to keep your brain engaged when handling food.

I look forward with interest to the discussion that this post is bound to generate.

For more information on gloves in food service, go to: 


Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree with the blog above!

Anonymous said...

I saw a food handler at a juice place peel bananas with her bare hands then handle the exposed banana fruit with those same hands and plop the bananas into a pan for future use on top of a fruit bowl or in a smoothie. After she did this with 4-5 bananas, she pulled on a glove picked up one of the unpeeled bananas and sliced it on the dame counter for use on top of my order. I was appalled. Should I have been???

John said...

Anonymous #2
It is possible to peel a banana without touching the inside of the fruit, but apparently the handler didn't do this. As O.P. Snyder said, IF the food handler's hands were clean, peeling the bananas without use of gloves would not necessarily be hazardous for you. However, it seems that she didn't understand what she was doing, since she then put on a glove to slice the bananas. If any contamination had been introduced by the peeling, the glove would make no difference at that point. Slicing on the counter, rather than on a sanitised chopping board, does cause me concern.

I don't know what the regulations are in your country, but many administrations require gloves to be used for handling ready-to-eat foods.

It looks as though the handler had not been properly trained and her supervisor should have picked this up.

It's easy to sit back and tell you what you should have done, but if you were appalled by what you saw, perhaps you should have made the point by refusing to accept your order.

John Brooks said...

I received the following comment from someone signing themselves "large scale catering". In accordance with my policy of rejecting comments including links to a commercial site, I have copied the text below:

"I usually spend hours on the net reading blogs on various subjects. And, I really would like to praise you for writing such a fabulous article.I really like your way of information given.Thanks!"

I do appreciate your comment; I couldn't let this go unpublished! J

Anonymous said...

I have no problem with chefs handling food with bare hands prior to cooking. But once cooked, they must use a ladle, spatula or fork to assemble them on a plate. Yet on TV I see these chefs unabashedly using a spatula and a free left hand to move the food to another container. How unsanitary indeed! And they're being watched by thousands of viewers.

John Brooks said...

Anonymous #3: I understand what you are saying and as I wrote above, some jurisdictions require RTE foods to be handled with gloved hands.

I think the important point is the requirement for properly washed hands. Microbial food poisoning usually results from the presence of pathogens in the food at infecting doses, or the presence of toxins produced by bacteria, which requires time for incubation i.e. the food to be temperature-abused.

If the chef has clean hands, and the food is served immediately, or otherwise controlled by refrigerated display for less than 2 hours, there is very little risk.

One question you could ask yourself is: "When I prepare food for myself or my family, do I wear gloves and use tools to serve the food? Do I ever handle it with bare hands? E.g. do I put cream buns on a plate using only tongs?"

Anonymous said...

My message to TV chefs and that includes all of them: Stop setting a bad example to your viewers by handling food with your fingers! Use an extra fork to flip a pork chop. This is for your own safety as you could end up with a burnt finger/fingers. You're also trying to tell viewers that it's OK to be sloppy. Do as I say or I will stop watching your shows.

John Brooks said...

Anonymous February 12:
You are, of course, right. There are plenty of tools in a kitchen that can be used instead of fingers and setting a bad example is always poor style.

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