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Local restaurants hope glove rule will be reversed


A new state law requiring chefs, bartenders and other food workers to use gloves when handling food has been so derided by the restaurant industry that it appears few local establishments have yet to implement the changes. And they may not have to if the Legislature enacts an emergency measure reversing the rule.

"I don't know anyone who is doing it yet," said Jamil Peden, executive chef of Woodfour Brewing Co. in Sebastopol. "We have gloves in the kitchen and we use them as needed, but I don't see (the law) as being more sanitary than the way we do things now."

The so-called glove law was part of an update to the state Retail Food Code passed by the Legislature in September. But when it went into effect Jan. 1, there was an almost immediate backlash by a coalition led mainly by chefs and bartenders, who contend the rules add unnecessary cost to preparing food without making the process safer.

"To follow the law as I understand it, we would have to change gloves with every drink we make and every time we touch a garnish," said Sean Dal Colletto, the bar manager of Mateo's Cocina in Healdsburg. "That would mean I'd have to go through 80-100 pairs on a busy night, which is ridiculous and, frankly, not very practical."

The law, which requires the use of gloves or utensils when handling "ready-to-eat" foods, has particularly irked sushi chefs who say using bare hands is a time-tested, integral part of the art of preparing the mostly raw Japanese seafood cuisine.

"You have to use your bare hands to feel the texture of fish and whether the rice is exactly right," said Kelly Shu, chef and owner of Ume Japanese Bistro in Windsor. "It's a tradition that is 100 years old. It's obviously successful."

The outcry spread throughout the restaurant industry in an area that is particularly proud of its culinary culture. Two petitions on Change.org, both originated in San Francisco, attracted nearly 20,000 signatures, partly prompting officials in Sacramento to rethink the bill.

On Monday, Assemblyman Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, a pediatrician and chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, introduced AB 2130, a bill that would repeal the section of code that prohibits bare-hand contact, replacing it with the previous rules.

Because the bill was introduced as emergency legislation, it will require a two-thirds vote of the Senate and Assembly.

If passed and signed by the governor, it would go into effect almost immediately. A spokesman for Pan says there is every expectation the repeal will be enacted before July 1, when the glove requirement, currently in a six-month grace period, is to go into full effect.

"The intent of the law — to minimize the handling of food with bare hands — remains," said the spokesman, Robert Abelon. "After it was implemented, there was confusion about how to interpret it. We felt we needed to hit reset and take another look at it."

Abelon said there is a broad coalition of state lawmakers backing the changes and he had "every hope" the revision would be approved in the coming weeks.

The news likely will be cheered by local chefs, who say they already are following strict rules on sanitary food handling, routines that are drilled into them from their earliest days learning their craft.

"Food safety is among the first classes taught here," said Dean Russell Scott of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. "It's a prerequisite. A student cannot move on without taking and passing it. It's that important."

Liza Hinman, chef-owner of The Spinster Sisters in Santa Rosa, said her restaurant had begun ordering cases of gloves and placing them at cooking stations, but had yet to implement the new rules. She said she and other chefs agreed with the intent of the law in principle, if not in practice.

"I wash my hands constantly. I make my employees wash their hands constantly," she said. "The last thing we want to do is make people sick."

Many chefs worried about the added waste of using so many more gloves.

"We already go through 200 gloves a day without the law," said John Stewart, chef and co-owner of Zazu Restaurant in Sebastopol, who added that the use of gloves won't necessarily make food preparation safer. "It's an illusion. People touch all sorts of things with gloves — it gives them a false sense of security. You're better off just washing your hands as often as possible."

As part of the statewide, six-month "soft" rollout of the new rules, Sonoma County health officials have mounted an educational campaign to inform establishments of the new requirements, as opposed to levying fines or other penalties when they find violations.

The federal Centers for Disease Control estimates that of the 48million cases of food-borne illness that occur every year, 128,000 require hospitalization and 3,000 result in death, said Dr. Karen Holbrook, the interim health officer for Sonoma County.

"It's a major problem," she said. "We recognize this is a burden on restaurants and chefs, but this comes from a place where we are trying to prevent people from getting sick. The use of gloves is only one element of that."

You can reach Staff Writer Elizabeth M. Cosin at 521-5276 or elizabeth.cosin@pressdemocrat.com.