Sometimes decisions made with the best of intentions fall short. And so it goes for California’s controversial “glove law,” which was passed earlier this year and is slated to go into effect July 1. The bill mandates that food preparers and bartenders wear disposable gloves or use utensils while handling ready-to-eat ingredients. The law was enacted in an effort to prevent food contamination that may occur with bare hand contact.
The thought and reality of people getting ill after visiting restaurants is disturbing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from Jan. 1, 2009, to December 31, 2010 (the most up-to-date data), public health departments in the U.S. reported 1,527 foodborne disease outbreaks, resulting in 29,444 cases of illness, 1,184 hospitalizations and 23 deaths. Among the 790 outbreaks with a laboratory-confirmed illness, norovirus (stomach flu) was the most commonly reported infection, accounting for 42 percent of outbreaks; followed by salmonella, with 30 percent of outbreaks. The law was created, at least in part, to address the norovirus issue. Further, 48 percent of contamination outbreaks were caused by food consumed in a restaurant or deli, 21 percent by food consumed in a private home.
While these statistics seem rather daunting, the fact of the matter is that restaurants are just the end of a long line of people and various factors for contamination. Unless all people who handle food, from the farm to the plate, wear sterilized hazmat suits and change them every time they switch to a different ingredient, contamination can happen — even soiled uniforms just while handling food may pose a risk. Even worse, the new law may give food preparers a false sense of security, resulting in contamination by not changing gloves or perhaps even not washing their hands. But when you really boil things down (no pun intended), with a population of more than 300 million, the number of people who actually contacted foodborne illnesses barely registers as a significant part of the population — over a two year period, only .009 percent of the population. Divide that in half to account for illness linked to restaurants and it’s almost ridiculous to think this law was proposed in the first place, given it’s only a state law and the data relates to national numbers.
Fortunately, the reality of this situation is resonating with the same group of people — the state Assembly’s Health Committee — who proposed the glove law that Gov. Jerry Brown signed earlier this year. This week, the committee voted to repeal it; the next step is for the state Assembly to vote and repeal it. While we are all for laws and regulations that, in the end, protect the greater good, this particular law places all the blame and responsibility on restaurant owners and ultimately creates a rather big burden on them to comply with the law by providing gloves and ensuring all that their staff follow the law lest they face penalties or even closure. (And think of the environmental hazard of all those disposable gloves in our landfills and elsewhere.) We support the effort of repeal. We urge our state Assembly members to do the same.