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Is your chef breaking California law?

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A new California law became effective on January 1, 2014 that requires chefs and bartenders to either wear gloves or use tongs when handling food; thus hand contact must be completely avoided for any item going to a plate or a drink glass. Enforcement of the law will begin this July. The author of the law is Assemblyman Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, who is a pediatrician. California has now joined 41 other states that have passed similar legislation.

Since 1993, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recommended a hands off policy for restaurants and bars as a component of basic hygiene. The FDA notes that thorough hand-washing is not adequate; for example, it only, it takes only a few norovirus particles (norovirus is the most common cause of foodborne illness) to infect diners. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that workers touching food provided the most common transmission pathway for food-originated norovirus outbreaks between 2001 and 2008,

Many healthcare experts note that the new law is a big step in the right direction; however, other measures are needed, such as keeping ill workers out of the kitchen and stressing hand-washing. Major chain restaurants are not affected by the new regulation because they already have policies in place to prevent hand contact with food. However, others are opposed to the policy. Until last year, the California Restaurant Association opposed the bill; however, it ended its opposition when it became aware that it would become a state law.

Interestingly, a petition by bartenders calling for an exemption from the new law garnered 11,000 signatures and caught the attention of Assemblyman Pan, D. As a result, he is currently seeking a revision. He explained that some dining facilities, such as sushi restaurants, could obtain an exception if they supplied evidence that the sushi chefs practiced good hygiene. In explaining his efforts for revision, Assemblyman Pan noted that improving food safety goes beyond wearing gloves, it also requires keeping food surfaces clean of contamination. In addition, gloves can spread disease can spread infection if they are not changed after each use. Experts on food safety note that educating food workers is just as important as implementing new laws.

Take home message:

The “no hands on approach” is a good one; however, some facilities and/or individuals will shun the law and cut corners (e.g., don a single pair of gloves for an entire shift). Of more importance, unless you are a frequent restaurant diner, is to practice good food hygiene at home is how you handle food in your own home. Wash your hands thoroughly before food preparation and thoroughly clean food surfaces between placing new items on them.