California Restaurateurs Fight The Bare-Hands Ban

In this photo taken Tuesday,March 11, 2014, pantry cook Alicia Palenyy uses her bare-hands to put cheese on a salad at the Hock Farm restaurant in Sacramento, Calif. Under a bill signed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown, chefs and bartenders in California must keep bare hands off food going straight to the plate or the drink glass, and must use gloves or kitchen utensils such as tongs. AP
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CBS/AP) -- On a recent evening, kitchen and bar staff at Hock Farm restaurant scrambled to keep up with the frenetic pace of dinnertime orders. They used bare hands to toss Caesar salad or add bitters to cocktail glasses. All were breaking a new state law that requires chefs and bartenders to use gloves or utensils during food and drink preparation.

Randy Paragary, owner of Hock Farm, said the gloves undermine the transparent kitchen-to-plate concept his establishment -- and California's restaurant scene -- is known for. "You'll feel like there's a doctor back there preparing your food," he said.

The California law was enacted in January, though it won't be enforced until July. Restaurant owners have been resistant to adapt their kitchen practices. Now state legislators are considering a reversal before inspectors begin slapping fines on eateries this summer.

California has been slow to ban bare-hand contact in restaurants. A state-by-state review of food codes shows 41 other states have a version of the legislation signed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown. The California Restaurant Association had opposed the bill until last year, when it recognized the widespread practice wasn't going away.

Since 1993, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recommended a hands-off approach in restaurants and bars. Even with good hand-washing, it takes only a few norovirus particles -- the most common cause of foodborne illness -- to infect diners, according to the FDA.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that workers touching food provided the most common transmission pathway for food-originated norovirus outbreaks between 2001 and 2008, the most recent comprehensive review of data available.

But many of the states with the bare-hand ban at restaurants and bars allow for exceptions. Food codes in Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Oregon and Wyoming encourage minimal contact but do not ban bare-hand contact completely.

Aaron Smith, executive director of the U.S. Bartenders' Guild and managing director of the bar 15 Romolo in San Francisco, said law-abiding employees cannot find an easy work-around for some mixology steps, such as fusing mints and herbs into his bar's signature, pricey drinks.

"They are trying to get expressive oil into the flavor and smell of the cocktail, and you are lacing that with the smell of latex and powder" using gloves, Smith said.

A petition by bartenders calling for an exemption from the "disposable glove law" gathered 11,000 signatures and caught the attention of state Assemblyman Richard Pan, D-Sacramento.

Pan, a pediatrician, said he and other lawmakers thought some eateries, such as sushi restaurants, could easily get an exception provided they showed good hygiene.

Ken Uechi, a Sacrameto-based sushi chef for 8 years told CBS Sacramento in January that the mandate to wear gloves has changed the nature of his job.

"It's about putting life into a piece of sushi," said Uechi. "We want to be able feel the rice, control the texture, but with gloves, it's kinda hard to."

In February, Pan introduced AB2130, which seeks to repeal the new regulation and revisit the entire issue, perhaps to forge a compromise. The first hearing is set for Tuesday. Whatever that bill's fate, public health experts say getting businesses on board with the spirit and purpose of food safety regulations is just as important as passing new laws.

"It's not about whether you wear gloves or not," Pan said. "It's about how clean the surfaces (touching food) are. We need to have the conversation go back to, 'This is about food safety.'"

Posted by Melissa Brunner