Sushi: hard to construct wearing gloves. (Wikimedia Commons)
Sushi: hard to construct wearing gloves. (Wikimedia Commons)

A new California law that requires food service workers from bartenders to sushi chefs to wear gloves is under attack — by the legislator who sponsored it. 

Assemblymember Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, says the intent of his bill, which became law Jan. 1, was to give local health departments more flexibility in regulating food safety in the restaurant industry. It required gloves for people handling ready-to-serve food unless their business has an exemption from local authorities.

“Our expectations were that local health departments would make the exemptions easy to use,” Pan said Monday. “Something that would be used fairly commonly, to ensure that while we protect food safety, we didn’t create problems for the restaurants and bars. Unfortunately, after the bill passed, the implementation of this particular now-law seemed to be fairly variable across different localities. It was interpreted by some local health departments as that it would be a major violation if people didn’t wear gloves.”

Pan, who’s a pediatrician and chairs the Assembly’s Health Committee, says that’s not at all what he had in mind and not what food safety best practices demand.

“Just wearing gloves alone is not necessarily going to make the food safer,” he said. The issue is the cleanliness of what’s touching the food. A dirty glove is worse than a clean hand.”

So Pan has introduced emergency legislation which would replace the new law with the previous standard. Once that’s done, he says he wants to work with chefs, restaurants and other interested parties to design regulations that’ll be more workable.

The glove policy wasn’t seen as particularly onerous by many national restaurant groups, but smaller chains and independent restaurants were caught unawares. Sushi chefs, like Toshi Sugiura of Los Angeles, were particularly unhappy because they believe tactile contact with the fish and rice is essential to their art.

“I’ve been doing 30 years making sushi, and it’s never been using gloves!” Sugiura told NPR.

In fact, so many sushi-makers have been sought out by journalists doing stories about the controversy it’s been referred to as the “sushi glove law.” That came as a surprise to Pan.

“Actually, before it was passed, it was known as the hot dog law, because there was some media focus on the fact that we had to include a definition of a hot dog,” he said. “But no one commented on the glove issue at all. That only happened after the law was passed.”

Pan credits Josh Miller of Alameda as a major force behind the decision to scrap the law.  Miller started an online petition to repeal the law as it pertains to bartenders.

The petition reads, in part, “While I’m sure the state Legislature had our best interests in mind when they created this law, I am equally sure they were not attempting to protect us from bartenders smacking a sprig of mint with their bare hands or expressing the oil of an orange twist above a cocktail.” 

More than 17,000 people signed either Miller’s petition or one from Iso Rabins of ForageSF.

Pan says although the law went into effect in January, health departments were only supposed to issue warnings to restaurants until July 1, with no penalties. He thinks the new bill will be passed and in effect before then. And he says there’s a lesson learned.

“Passing a law is only part of the journey,” Pan said. “The implementation is also a very important part. Clearly the issues involved in this were not as vetted as we would have liked, and there are unintended consequences that we are just realizing now.”

  • Dinah

    Great work by Josh Miller and Iso Rabins on this; we can have safety and tradition both if we plan the implementation a bit better. Glad to see a dialog opening up between these food and drink communities and legislators.

  • Sanitary Sam

    Restaurant-goers should be wary of any restaurant that chooses gloves over hand-washing (as many did before the law, in a form of sanitation theater) and should be alarmed at the existence of the glove law. Even in low-end restaurants, most of the time kitchen employees are drilled in how and when to wash their hands, and washing is frequent in any well-run restaurant regardless of the price of menu items. How often do you suppose they change gloves? Even in restaurants where the food prep area is in full view of customers, the answer often is they’re never changed except at break time or when a glove tears. I’ve seen both situations while working in kitchens, and I won’t eat at a place where I know they’re using gloves. I’d rather cook something myself, or (unfortunately) eat something in a package.


Nina Thorsen

Nina Thorsen is a KQED radio producer and director, and frequently reports on sports, food and culture.  

She co-created and produced KQED's Pacific Time,  a weekly radio program on Asian and Asian American issues that aired from 2000 to 2007. Before coming to KQED, Thorsen was the deputy foreign editor for Marketplace.  In her home state of Minnesota, she worked for A Prairie Home Companion and for Public Radio International.  

Nina was honored by the Radio-TV News Directors Association of Northern California in 2012 for a series of stories on the Oakland A's stadium.  She is a graduate of the University of Minnesota with a degree in speech-communication. 

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