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.
Hands, gloves and food preparation -- a topic that's been covered here at Ed's Diner -- comes up in the New York Times today, after an amateur food inspector produced a video that appeared to show a rubber glove in a diner's salad in a New York restaurant.
While only a still image of the video can be found online, the Times intones: "The unusual episode hinted at a larger problem. Twenty years after disposable gloves became common in restaurant kitchens, it is not clear that they prevent the transmission of illness. There are some who argue that the gloves themselves are dangerous to health."
"The reason that workers wear gloves is that they don't wash their hands as much as they should," said Denise Korniewicz, a professor at the University of Miami School of Nursing and Health Studies who has studied the efficacy of rubber gloves for more than 20 years. "If you walk into any fast-food restaurant and observe people, they use the cash register, they wipe their nose and then they make your sandwich."
"Gloves themselves can be an inhibitor to food safety," a Los Angeles County Department of Public Health official told Ed's Diner last year. "Often, employees don't change gloves, which is sort of like not washing your hands."
Some restaurant owners are not sure the gloves make anybody safer, the Times said.
"When your hands are bare you can tell if you get something on them, and you immediately wash," said Debra Silva, who owns Clem & Ursie's, a seafood restaurant in Provincetown, Mass. "But if you're wearing gloves, you might have no idea that you've touched something dirty."
The Times said that is easier said than done: Thousands of United States restaurant workers were surveyed for a study published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health in 2005. More than a third said they did not always change their gloves between touching raw meat or poultry and ready-to-eat food.
Then there's the issue of materials. Many people -- workers and diners -- are allergic to latex. Three states have banned latex gloves in restaurants. Vinyl gloves are an alternative, but some scientists believe a chemical in vinyl gloves can cause testicular damage in infants and young men.
The American Latex Allergy Association is pro-handwashing. The Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers' Association (Malaysian companies make most of the gloves used in this country) says allergies are rare.
Last year, Tacoma's Indochine Asian Dining Lounge was shut down for one night after a health inspector saw a cook touch a garnish with his bare hand. Indochine, which does not serve sushi, tried the sushi defense -- that sushi chefs get away with rolling with their bare hands.
"In terms of rolling sushi, a lot of it has to do with touch," the Los Angeles health official told me. "It's like rolling a joint."
The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department just says no to that notion.
"Bare-hand contact seems to be an issue with many restaurants," said Diane Westbrook of the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. "Often times when the health inspector shows up, the gloves go on. We do cite it when we see it."
After Indochine's kerfuffle, I visited a handful of sushi restaurants. Two Koi was the only sushi restaurant of the bunch where anyone wore gloves while making my sushi. Ironically, the downtown restaurant 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 chef Jackie Koh would have felt that piece of plastic wrap that clung to the Angus beef roll he served me.