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Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson serves up the best info and tips on Northwest food, cooking, dining and restaurants.

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March 27, 2008 4:20 PM

Off with the gloves! (Ewwww) Or not.

Posted by Nancy Leson

We eat a lot of tossed salads in my house, and when it comes to tossing them, my husband and I beg to differ. Not about the dressing, which we make with a simple mix of Costco EVOO, Trader Joe's balsamic vinegar and Diamond kosher salt. Where we differ is in the "tossing" part. When he's prepping the salad he uses a pair of maplewood bear claws. I use bare claws too: the ones attached to my arms.

Mac hates it when I use my hands, and sometimes, when I'm feeling generous, I reach for my sturdy chef's tongs instead. But I much prefer to use my hands, since that's the best way to get every lettuce leaf properly coated. I do this at the counter next to the sink where, without fail, I wash my hands before tossing and plating.

I tell you this as a prelude to a discussion that you may not want to read if you're noshing over your keyboard. (And Mac, if you're reading this post, uh, please stop and go walk the dogs or something.)

For years, I noticed food-service personnel wearing disposable gloves while they're preparing food. I say "often" because they don't always wear them. I've figured there must be some regulations regarding glove usage, but I didn't know what those were. And then, over the past few weeks, I've witnessed some inappropriate glove-wearing behavior that made me wonder: What would John Law have to say about what I saw?

At 13 Coins, I watched a cook work for the better part of an hour in the same pair of health-department-appropriate "single use" gloves, grilling meat, composing sandwiches, tossing cheese into omelets, grabbing frozen french fries with his hands -- then grabbing a cloth to wipe down the countertop before heading back to the stove.

At one of the many Than Bros. pho houses I frequent, servers wore disposable gloves as they ferried bowls of pho from kitchen to table. Maybe they wore them to keep from being burnt by hot soup stock. Or maybe they were just following health department orders, seeing as their job has them plating up herbs, limes, bean sprouts and other produce served alongside those bowls of soup.

To my thinking, the glove-wearing was aiding and abetting cross-contamination. And isn't contamination the Big Evil in a food-service setting?

I also wondered about sushi bars. Many sushi chefs work bare-handed. Is that legal? What about the waiters who slice bread for their customers using ungloved hands? Is that a violation?

Everything I just described is a violation according to Steve Fuller, food-safety specialist at the Washington State Department of Health. "It's all spelled out in our state's retail food code," says Fuller. "Food workers aren't allowed to touch ready-to-eat food with their bare hands." Nor, he says, can they touch "any food that isn't going to be subsequently cooked." As for the prolonged glove-wearing and my concerns about cross-contamination, he says the DOH "does not think of gloves as a prevention of cross-contamination." Their purpose is to keep food-service personnel from transmitting "fecal-oral disease."

He explains: After observing food-borne illness outbreaks over the course of 10 years, the DOH recognized that many incidences of illness were due to fecal transmission and ingestion. "In order for the illness to occur, three things had to happen," notes Fuller. "The food worker has to come to work when they are sick, the food worker has to not properly wash their hands after going to the bathroom, and that food worker then touches someone's food."

Lovely. Hand me my tongs.

The DOH has attempted to institute controls on all three points, Fuller says. The first two -- don't come to work if you've been vomiting or have diarrhea, and wash your hands carefully with hot water when you use the restroom -- are more difficult to enforce than the more obvious "don't touch uncooked or ready-to-eat foods with your bare hands," he says. "We don't mandate that they use gloves" (aha!), but the DOH does mandate that food workers use something other than bare hands while working with foods: "tongs, spatulas, knives, whatever they come up with."

As for the sushi situation: "Our rule is a blanket rule," insists Fuller. Sushi chefs "are still required to use gloves or some other method to prevent bare hand contact." So why do many sushi chefs continue to work barehanded? Some, according to one of the city's foremost sushi chefs, have a special exemption from the King County Health Department -- though he believes those exemptions may no longer be available, or even valid (a claim that backs up what Fuller says).

"We hear a fair number of sushi chefs complain about using gloves," says Fuller, "but from personal experience, I can tell you that there are many sushi chefs who are able to do everything they want with the gloves on. We try to be respectful of preparation techniques that are culturally important, but our primary role is protecting against food-borne illnesses. And for us, that takes precedence."

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