Mandatory Glove Laws in Restaurants Are Still Incredibly Stupid

In Depth

Sanitation is important in restaurants, where health code violations are frequently a problem. The dumbest possible way to attempt to combat this problem, however, is with mandatory glove laws.

Chef David Bouhadana’s two New York sushi restaurants, Sushi Dojo and Dojo Express, were recently shuttered by the Health Department, in part due to chefs refusing to wear gloves (Bouhadana claims that’s the only reason; the health department disagrees). In response, Bouhadana has launched a petition aiming to get New York to repeal the laws that closed his restaurants. Other food writers, as well as Anthony Bourdain (who points out that when we’re talking about high-end sushi in particular, “this is not Subway, for fuck’s sake”), have also spoken out against the law and in favor of Bouhadana.

If this sounds like something you’ve heard before, it’s because last year, California passed—and ultimately repealed—a mandatory glove use law. California’s law was actually even dumber than New York’s, since it required bartenders handling any drink garnish to wear gloves—a policy that stretches beyond breaking any concept of feasibility, as anyone familiar with working in a bar could attest. Ultimately, the restaurant industry came out so strongly against it that the law, which had been passed unanimously, was also repealed unanimously. The original bill’s sponsor even spoke out in favor of its repeal.

A lot of health and safety-related restaurant requirements are nitpicky, unnecessary, and aimed more at looking like you’ve fixed a problem rather than actually fixing it—none moreso than mandatory glove laws. At least 40 states have laws related to chefs touching food with their bare hands; not all are glove laws, but all are very stupid. New York’s is no exception. But why wouldn’t we want food handlers to wear gloves, you might ask? Oh, for so very many reasons.

Chief among them is the simple fact that kitchens using gloves are not more likely to meet sanitary standards than those utilizing simple handwashing. You can say, “well, not every kitchen is going to properly wash their hands all the time,” but for any kitchen worth a damn, that’s not true. Culinary schools spend an inordinate amount of time teaching chefs the importance and most effective methods of handwashing. “In one of my classes at the CIA (which was literally called “Food Safety”),” says Michelle Mallett, currently a chef at Brave Horse Tavern in Seattle, Washington, “the professor had a student wash her hands and then squirted this gel stuff on them and put them under a purple light and we could see where all the bacteria still was after she washed her hands. So it was pretty heavily ingrained in us to wash correctly and often.”

According to Mallett, questions about handwashing also made up a not-insignificant portion of SafeServe testing. Chefs—especially for cuisines like sushi, where subtle flavors can be heavily influenced by the tiniest of environmental factors—know how to wash their damn hands. Sure, there are kitchens that won’t live up to those lofty standards, but do you really think any kitchen that would screw up handwashing procedures isn’t also going to screw up glove use in an equally unsanitary way? “Unfortunately, I have never seen glove training made as important as hand washing…I have seen people wear their gloves INTO THE BATHROOM…if you suck at handwashing, you’ll suck at glove use, too,” says Mallett.* Studies have borne this out, pointing out that the false sense of security and less-frequent handwashing caused by glove use in restaurants can actually encourage cross-contamination and reduce sanitation. Improper handwashing can lead to food safety concerns—but so can improper glove use.

There’s also the environmental cost: mandatory glove laws cause a tremendous uptick in the use of latex or vinyl gloves, which are less than beneficial to Planet Earth. Millions more disposable gloves per day hitting American landfills isn’t exactly something for which we should be cheering. But hey, who the hell needs the environment, right?

Ultimately, mandatory glove laws don’t fix any problem; they’re just designed to look like they do. There are always going to be restaurants that aren’t up to code, and mandatory glove laws don’t do anything to change that. That isn’t to say health departments shouldn’t try to catch actual violations, including those related to handwashing—they absolutely should. But mandatory glove use does nothing to solve any issue, and only makes things infinitely worse for restaurants (out of inconvenience), customers (out of food quality and, quite possibly, sanitation), and the environment (all those goddamned gloves). It’s time to get rid of these stupid, unnecessary laws once and for all.

Image via HLPhoto/Shutterstock.

* Mallett does note that she personally is of mixed feelings about mandatory glove laws: “When used correctly, gloves are fantastic. It cuts down on transmission of microbes, absolutely. It’s like the safe route for dummies.”

Contact the author at [email protected].

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