Policy/Biz

California Chefs Fight New Ban On Bare-Hand Contact With Food, But Is The Law Necessary To Prevent Foodborne Illness?

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California's new ban on bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat food has come under fire from chefs and restaurant owners who say it will lead to unnecessary waste and disrupt routines. Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

A new California bill outlawing bare-hand contact with food won’t be enforced until July — but chefs and restaurateurs across the state are already voicing concern over the ban, which they say will disrupt hygiene routines and boost unnecessary waste.

Randy Paragary, owner of Hock Farm Craft and Provisions in Sacramento, Calif., said that the law will also restrict employees in their craft, undermining the kitchen-to-plate, farm-to-fork image many higher-end restaurants work hard to maintain. "You'll feel like there's a doctor back there preparing your food,” he said, speaking to the Miami Herald.

The law, which went into effect in January, bans all bare-hand contact with food going straight to the plate or into a drinking glass. Employees must instead use utensils or gloves. To date, 41 other states have enacted similar measures, making California one of the last to implement the hands-off policy.

Another Sacramento restaurateur, Randall Selland, called the ban an unnecessary measure that belongs in the fast food industry and production-line restaurants. "If people get sick at my restaurant, they are going to stop coming," he told the paper. "You have got to give restaurants some trust."

Regulators, however, have a different view. Since 1993, the FDA has recommended a hands-off approach to all ready-to-eat food, calling it a staple of basic hygiene. Similarly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cite studies suggesting that workers touching food provided the most common transmission pathway for foodborne illnesses like the norovirus.

"It's an additional barrier to help protect the food," Liza Frias, environmental health manager for the city of Pasadena and chairwoman of the state’s Retail Food Safety Coalition, said. "You have everyday consumers who are looking for glove use."

But with state laws prohibiting contact with everything from meat to lime wedges, it is not uncommon for restaurants and bars to work around the rules. Workers typically stick to pre-ban hygiene routines, keeping gloves handy for visits from the health inspector. And most bartenders continue to mix fresh ingredients the old fashioned way.

California state legislators have taken note of the criticism and are reportedly considering a reversal before inspections begin this summer. However, public health experts note that lawmaking alone won’t help the state’s issues with hygiene. "The bigger picture is whether businesses know what the risk factors are and how to control them," Ben Chapman, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University who has studied restaurant hygiene, said. "Having a policy doesn't mean it actually works. ... Prove to a patron that your people wash their hands all the time and the right way."

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