Whether the food's been cooked or whether the food is going to be served uncooked, Pierce County food service workers are required to wear gloves or use tongs when touching or preparing whatever you might eat. That includes lemon in your iced tea, bread in your basket and garnish on your plate.
The owners of Indochine Asian Dining Lounge said they felt singled out last month when the Pacific Avenue eatery was closed for one night by the Pierce County Health Department. An inspector saw one of Indochine's cooks touch garnish with his bare hand.
While Indochine was already on probation for repeated critical violations (hence the shutdown), a cursory check of Health Department records indicates that Indochine was not singled out:
Many other restaurants, including some good ones, have been cited for the same infraction recently after health inspectors observed workers touching ready-to-eat-foods -– everything from sliced lemons to baked bread -– with their bare hands, a Health Department no-no that's considered to be a critical violation of code 0500.
According to the Health Department's Web site, critical violations are more likely than others to directly contribute to food contamination or food-borne illness.
Sea Grill was dinged last week when an inspector saw a cook grab garnish without gloves or tongs.
"He did something he wasn't supposed to do," Sea Grill general manager Mike Newman said of the cook's bare-hands action.
Two days earlier, Asado was slapped for the same violation.
"A server touched a lemon," chef Sean Quinn said.
The week before at Babblin' Bab's Bistro, an inspector saw co-owner Shannon Mueller remove a loaf of bread from the oven. With her bare hands, of course.
None of the restaurants reported previous bare-hands infractions.
"They're really big on it," Sea Grill's Newman said of the Health Department's eye for bare-hands violators. "I understand where they're coming from. The garnish isn't necessarily intended for consumption, but it could touch something else on the plate that you do eat."
Sea Grill, Asado and Babblin' Bab's Bistro all were told by health inspectors to use gloves and tongs.
"They are here for education. I understand that," Asado's Quinn said of the Health Department. "It's a difficult situation to manage all the time."
Explaining its case to the Health Department last month, Indochine invoked sushi –- a literally touchy subject that requires hands-on preparation. Indochine was reminded that in Pierce County, touching raw tuna (or yellowtail or surf clams) with one's bare hands is not allowed.
"Bare-hand contact seems to be an issue with many restaurants," the Health Department's Diane Westbrook said. "Often times when the health inspector shows up, the gloves go on. We do cite it when we see it."
(King County restaurants can apply for bare-hands exemptions. They need to have clean inspection reports for the past two years and demonstrate that they follow and enforce proper hand-washing procedures.)
Except for Twokoi, which opened in mid-September, all of the restaurants had been cited for bare-hands contact with ready-to-eat foods within the past year.
Twokoi was the only sushi restaurant of the bunch where anyone wore gloves while making my sushi. Ironically, Twokoi was the one place where I wished that the person making my sushi had the bare-hands benefit of tactile sensation. Without rubber gloves, perhaps he would have felt that piece of plastic wrap that clung to the Angus beef roll I was served.
"To a certain degree you do need to have hand contact," said Terrence Powell, director of special operations and planning at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
Like all 58 California counties, Los Angeles follows and enforces the California Uniform Retail Food Facilities Law, which urges the use of gloves and tongs but allows bare-hands contact with food as long as proper hand-washing procedures are followed.
"In terms of rolling sushi, a lot of it has to do with touch," Powell said. "It's like rolling a joint."
William Mueller of Babblin' Bab's Bistro had a sobering scenario. Some things are difficult to grab with gloves, he said.
"How do you garnish with chopped parsley?" he asked. "Emeril, you're fired. No more 'Bam!' without a rubber glove!"
But even that's not the answer. Mueller said he dined out recently and didn't see the kitchen crew change gloves the entire 45 minutes he was in the restaurant.
"Gloves themselves can be an inhibitor to food safety," Powell said. "Often, employees don't change gloves, which is sort of like not washing your hands."