State lawmakers have passed a new food safety law that they wish they hadn't.
Anyone working in a California restaurant or bar who prepares ready-to-eat food - from bagels to sushi to fruit salad to cocktails - has to wear gloves or use deli tissue, spatulas or tongs. But the new rule, which went into effect Jan. 1, has had so much blowback that lawmakers are already trying to repeal it.
"It had unintended consequences," said Assemblyman Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, a physician and chairman of the Assembly's Committee on Health, which carried the bill in the first place. "There was not a specific incident that led to the new rules. The statute was intended to make minor changes to the California Retail Food Code, because food safety is something we have to take very seriously. So we wanted to make sure that the bill was consistent with other food safety regulations, including minimizing bare-hand contact with food."
|Ian Anderson pours drinks at 15 Romolo|
The "glove law" was supposed to be a consensus bill, Pan said. It was agreed upon that if aspects of the bill had opposition at any time in the process, those provisions would be removed from the proposal. But there was no resistance, and AB1252 sailed through both houses of the Legislature with unanimous approval in 2013 and was signed by the governor.
News to them
The problem was most small restaurant and bar owners didn't know anything about it.
"Literally not one person I know had heard about it," said Iso Rabins, founder of ForageSF, a local incubator for small food makers.
"The first time I heard about it was in January, when it had already passed," he said.
Rabins spearheaded a petition against the rules and has been instrumental in persuading legislators to try to cancel the legislation.
Food makers, restaurateurs and bartenders argue that the glove law is not only cost prohibitive, wasteful and counterproductive to environmental strides such as plastic bag bans, it is also not particularly valuable to public health.
Under the new provision, food and beverage handlers would have to change gloves every time they change tasks or touch another ready-to-eat food. Even then, they still would be required to wash their hands between glove changes. The concern is that amid multitasking, food and drink handlers might resist or forget to change gloves repeatedly.
"A dirty glove is worse than a clean hand," Pan said. "Gloves don't inherently guarantee safety."
Although the bill became law two months ago, restaurants and bars have until June to comply, but, by then, Pan hopes he will have rolled it back. The repeal attempt has been marked as emergency legislation, needs a two-thirds vote from the Assembly and state Senate, and must be signed by the governor. Pan doesn't expect it to be a problem.
If the law isn't rescinded, Remy Nelson, owner of Mojo Bicycle Cafe in San Francisco, estimates he'll go through 50,000 gloves a year just for bagels.
"It's not that we don't use gloves," he said. "But this means we have to change gloves for every food that's not going to be recooked. We're not Noah's Bagels. We do a really small number, and it takes 20 seconds to get the gloves on and off. People may not want McDonald's, but they want some speed. They have to get their food and get out the door."
Aaron Smith, executive director of the U.S. Bartenders' Guild and co-owner of 15 Romolo, a bar in North Beach, figures he'd lose $80,000 a year in revenue from the cost of gloves and inefficiency.
"The gloves would slow us down by about 8,000 drinks a year," he said. "We would have to accommodate more bartenders to make up the difference."
Bare hands needed
That doesn't take into account the dexterity that cooks and bartenders would lose for tasks such as preparing sushi or garnishing a drink with a lemon twist, which they say is nearly impossible when hands aren't bare. In fact, some sushi chefs have argued that part of the skill that goes into raw fish preparation is the temperature of one's hands. And then there's the concern of broken glass.
"Glass breakage is already an occupational hazard," Smith said. "We think wet gloves will make it worse."
It's not that Smith doesn't believe in food safety. He said his business relies on it.
"All our prep is done with public health in mind," he said. "But there is no science that I know of that says food-borne illness is more likely to be spread with bare hands than latex gloves."
Josh Miller, an Alameda cocktail blogger who started a petition against the law and got 11,500 bartender and customer signatures, said this isn't something consumers asked for.
"People definitely have some egg on their faces," Miller said of state legislators. "But at least they're trying to right a wrong."
By Stacy Finz, San Francisco Chronicle staff writer, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @sfinz