Tainted food handlers’ gloves

There are more and more fast food chains requiring their food handler to use gloves when preparing food items, as an indication of hygiene and food safety.

The idea, on the surface, appears to be a good one. The practice implies that food is shielded from being touched by “dirty” bare hands. Knowing that our environment and entire body are “normally” loaded with germs, using gloves to handle food seems to make sense.


But what is, in fact, the reality?

To find out and confirm my suspicion, I conducted a personal observation tour of various fast food chains here in the United States, and in my travels in Europe and Asia, where food handlers routinely use gloves.

Since the idea obviously had a medical origin, let me take you back to the year 1889, almost a century and 26 years ago, when thin rubber gloves were used for the first time in the history of medicine. The famous surgeon, Dr. William Halsted from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore (USA) invented surgical gloves. Before that time, surgeon used to do surgery with their bare hands, after washing them meticulously with soap and water and disinfected with mercuric chloride or carbolic acid. The infection rate following surgery before the era of aseptic (free from germ) surgery was unacceptably high and about 80 percent of patients died from infection after surgery. Today, the mortality for most surgeries is down to 1 to 5 percent in general.

Hidden dangers in glove use
While gloves are supposed to protect, it could be the source of infection, if not used properly. The caveat is: To be hygienic, the worn gloves of food handlers MUST NOT touch anything else but food to avoid bacterial, viral, protozoan, or even chemical (surfaces sprayed with Lysol, etc.) contamination.

Wearing gloves provides a false sense of security to both the food handler and the customers who do not know the science behind, or the fine subtleties in their use. The “confidence” of the food handlers using gloves may led to careless and risky behaviors.

The warmth and moisture created inside the gloves are ideal for bacterial growth and proliferation, besides the possible tears in them that could allow transfer of the contamination to the food. After two hours of use, the gloves must be thrown away, the hands washed and dried, and a new pair should be worn. (The containers where gloves are stored must also be dry and clean, in room or lower temperature.)

Improper use, more than leakage, has been the more significant problem among food handlers that led to bacterial contamination and food borne diarrhea and other gastrointestinal illnesses, like food poisoning.

My survey findings
As a surgeon, I found the breaches in the proper protocol for the use of gloves to be glaringly obvious when I observed the users.

Unfortunately, in my observation 100 percent (ALL) of the persons I witnessed handling food were using them improperly, contaminating their gloves, without even realizing they were doing it and then touching the food they were serving their customers. The germs on the surfaces they touch transfer the bacteria to their gloves. Thereafter, whatever the gloves touch will also get the germs. The current Ebola infections underscores this very clearly.
A specific scenario: The gloved food handler picks up the bread (which is presumably clean), then picks up the knife, which has been sitting on the counter, being used the whole day without being washed until the end of the day. If we take a bacterial swab on this knife, the culture will show it is teeming with germs, like the table counter, microwave handle, closet handles, the French Fries fryer handle, etc. So, the gloves are now contaminated. He cuts the bread, which is now contaminated also, and opens the microwave or grill oven (whose handles are also loaded with germs), and contaminate the gloves further. He touches the bread and holds the meat, lettuce, tomato, onions, etc. to make the sandwich. In this situation there are at least 3 instances of contamination and at least five contaminated food items.

Sometimes, the food handlers even wiped their gloves on their apron, which is loaded with bacteria also, or clean the counter tops, which again adds to the contamination.

In essence, since we know that germs are on all surfaces in our environment, in public places and at home, the clean gloves must touch ONLY the food item, nothing else.

Possible solution
First and foremost, food handlers must undergo mandatory training on bacteria and food poisoning, proper behavior in preparing and handling food, and hygienic practice, including the proper use of gloves. They must realize restaurants and employees have been sued for negligence in cases of food poisoning, etc., and about their serious (legal) responsibilities as food handlers.

Even the best gloves are NO substitute for frequent, thorough, hand washing with soap and water, especially among food handlers, in public places or at home.

Door handles of microwave or grill/toasters, knives, countertops, etc., must be cleaned with soap and water, even with vinegar (which is acetic acid that repels germs), at least every two hours in restaurants. Lysol, Chlorox (chlorine), alcohol, the new organic cleansers, or other poisonous chemicals must not be used, since contamination with these are more dangerous than bacterial.

The healthy food servers must come to work with fresh and clean attire. They must first wash their hands with soap and hot water for at least 30 seconds and dry them very well using clean towels. No skin lotion or moisturizers on the hands. New, unused, gloves are worn. Gloves, while worn, are washed every 15 minutes, and dried with clean towel, as the food handlers continue to work. Gloves are discarded every two hours and a new clean pair is used. Worn only once, gloves, which are disposables, are thrown away and not re-washed and re-used.

While gloved for work, these employees are not allowed to use their cell phones or other devices, or smoke, blowing noses or scratching body parts, etc. except in between gloving. The goal is to minimize contamination to the least possible extent, recognizing that zero tolerance is not a reality and that the body of a healthy person can tolerate a tiny bit of bacteria.

Obviously, persons with poor personal hygiene, those with skin diseases (contagious or not), and other medical disqualifications, must not be hired as food handlers for public safety. The onus is on the owner of the establishment.

Frequent, consistent, hand washing by food handlers and customers alike, at least 8 times  day, and using clean gloves as an added “insurance,” when used properly, will reduce the very common loose stools or mild diarrheas many experience (and think to be normal) from time to time. Frequent contamination leads too inflammation within us, which leads to many forms of diseases, cardiovascular, metabolic, even cancer.

Actually, proper hand washing and drying after serving each customer, is the best way to minimize bacterial
contamination, compared to gloving, when improperly used.

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TAGS: diarrhea, Ebola, food, health, kitchen, sanitation, virus
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