• In California, chefs fight for bare-hand contact
     | March 25,2014
    ap photo

    Luis Escamilla puts on gloves before cutting prosciutto 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. In California, the law took effect Jan. 1 and the state will begin enforcement in July.

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As the happy hour crowd poured in on a recent weeknight, the kitchen and bar staff at Hock Farm restaurant scrambled to meet the incoming orders.

    One used her hands to toss locally grown Romaine hearts with anchovy dressing in a metal bowl, while another, facing diners from behind a marble countertop, used his fingers to sprinkle cojita cheese and red onion into chicken tacos.

    A gloveless bartender wedged an orange slice on the edge of a white wine spritzer.

    All of them were breaking a state law that took effect in January, but won’t be enforced until July.

    California is a straggler in banning bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat food. 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.

    In all these states, chefs and bartenders must keep bare hands off food going straight to the plate or the drink glass, from the rice in a sushi roll to the mint in a mojito. Instead, they must use utensils or gloves. Hock Farm owner Randy Paragary says bringing this rule to California disrupts well-established hand-washing routines, generates unnecessary waste and restricts his employees’ in their craft.

    Hearing restaurant owners echo his concerns about the law’s inflexibility, state legislators are considering a reversal before inspectors begin slapping fines on eateries this summer.

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

    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.

    “It’s an additional barrier to help protect the food,” said Liza Frias, environmental health manager for the city of Pasadena and chairwoman of California’s Retail Food Safety Coalition, which represents regulators and business groups. “You have everyday consumers who are looking for glove use.”

    The other barriers, experts say, are keeping sick workers out of the kitchen and ensuring strong hand-washing.

    Major chain restaurants are used to gloves and generally shrug at this kind of regulation. The California Restaurant Association had opposed the bill until last year, when it recognized the widespread practice wasn’t going away.

    To higher-end restaurants such as Hock Farm, the mandate came as an irritating surprise. Sacramento’s dining scene emphasizes using fresh, locally grown food as part of the farm-to-fork movement. And Paragary, the Hock Farm owner, says gloves would undermine the transparent kitchen-to-plate step his customers observe.

    “You’ll feel like there’s a doctor back there preparing your food,” he said.

    Another Sacramento restaurateur, Randall Selland, calls the new law an unnecessary infringement on highly regarded establishments, saying it’s better suited for fast food and production-line restaurants.

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