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Culinarily Curious: Think rubber gloves protect your food from germs? Think again.

Posted by Alex Pearlman  March 26, 2012 05:16 PM

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rubber gloves cooking.jpgBy Anthony Howard

A couple weeks ago, after that transformer fire left shops, restaurants, and homes in Back Bay without power for a couple of daysThe Boston Globe released a photo that sparked quite a debate. The photo shows employees at The Capital Grille moving various cuts of meat to other refrigerated storage with their bare hands; the meat is also being exposed to outdoor, open air.

Many people expressed disgust at the fact that the employees weren't wearing gloves while handling the meat, and while I understand their complaints, as someone who works in a high-volume, full-service restaurant kitchen, I want to play devil's advocate in that great glove debate. I'm not condoning the behavior of those employees on that day; I merely want to give diners the full picture.

Gloves are a bit of a double-edged sword in the kitchen. They're great when a cook cuts himself because they stop the blood from getting into and contaminating the food. They're also great for preventing germs from spreading from hands to food when a cook is focusing on one task, like portioning hamburger patties or butchering a chicken.

But gloves don’t do anything if the cook wearing them touches, say, a piece of raw meat and then picks up a piece of cooked meat with the same gloves -- and at the height of a lunch rush or dinner service, when tickets are coming in left and right, stress levels are high, and getting food out promptly and efficiently is of the utmost importance, you can bet that happens. If you're a line cook and are running around trying to put together 10 different orders all at once, those gloves are a hindrance more than a help. They also make your hands sweaty and warm, which is the perfect way to foster bacteria that would then enter the food if the glove was pierced in any way.

Speaking from experience, a cook is also much more likely to wash his hands exponentially more often if he's working and not wearing gloves than if he is. Think about it: If you’re touching foods and seasonings and getting little foodstuffs on your hands, you’re more apt to wash them and get the grit off before moving on to your next task. If you're wearing gloves, you feel as though you can skip that step -- but you really shouldn't.

Massachusetts laws prohibit food service employees from touching ready-to-eat food with their bare hands. However, as per the State Sanitary Code, “single-use natural rubber latex gloves are not recommended in food establishments.” So while it’s really not OK for a cook to be touching food that's about to be plated and served with his bare hands, it’s safer for diners if he's touching that food with a clean bare hand than with a sweaty hand under a latex glove.

Gloves are not the be all, end all when it comes to safety in food handling. Think twice before you give into that false sense of security.

Do you trust restaurant employees to properly handle your food with their bare hands, or would you feel better if they all wore gloves?

'Culinarily Curious' is TNGG Boston's column on all things food, written by Anthony Howard.

Photo by f1uffster (Jeanie) (Flickr)

About Anthony -- I'm a 22-year-old Massachusetts native -- grew up in the 'burbs and now spend my young adult life in the city. I am passionate about cooking and currently assistant manage a restaurant kitchen in Kendall Square. Let's just say that when I invite friends over for dinner parties, no one ever turns me down.

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This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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