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Gloves vs no gloves: The transmission of pathogens

Food handling gloves can play a huge role in the avoidance of cross-contamination in the food industry. However, there is clear evidence to suggest that gloves in food processing and other areas of the food industry do not always prevent pathogens from spreading.

Despite people’s beliefs, gloves can be a source of contamination just as bare hands can. Foodborne pathogens spread easily, and indeed, one study involving a comparison of gloved and non-gloved food handlers engaging with different foods found the bacterial counts were consistently higher in the foods involving gloved handlers.

Why does this happen? Firstly, food preparation workers typically touch a wide variety of surfaces which may themselves be contaminated. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, workers who wear food prep gloves can get complacent about following proper hand hygiene guidelines, leading to pathogenic bacteria in food spreading, and several types of foodborne illnesses potentially materialising as a result.

As an example of how easily cross-contamination can occur, one study examined the microbial failure rates of surfaces touched by hands during food service, without hand washing, immediately before touching ready-to-eat (RTE) food. The research found that containers touched by hands 23% of times, had an 84% microbiological failure rate and bin lids which touched by food handlers 4% of times during food service had a 100% failure rate.

food processing factory

To make the best possible business decision, advantages and disadvantages of food service gloves should be seriously considered, and the limitations of each addressed:

Advantages of wearing gloves

  • Acts as a barrier and an extra layer over hands that are contaminated with pathogenic organisms
  • Can be useful if someone returns to work and is recovering from a virus
  • Customer reassurance and satisfaction
  • Protects sensitive hands
  • Improves hand grip

Disadvantages of wearing gloves

  • The wrong sized glove could tear or puncture leading to food contamination due to exposure to skin
  • Can be contaminated themselves and can cause cross contamination if the glove had touched any other surfaces
  • Can create illusion of false security in mind of wearer
  • May not be changed frequently enough
  • Increases business costs
  • May be incorrectly or inappropriately used

Guidelines for proper glove use

  • Create a glove policy and deliver educational advice on glove standard operating procedures
  • Decontaminate hands before putting on gloves
  • Remove contaminated gloves before touching other surfaces
  • Change gloves immediately after contaminated material is touched
  • Do not reuse disposable gloves
  • Always dispose gloves before using the toilet/restroom
  • Understand which type of gloves are best suited for the intended purpose

In the UK, the number of foodborne illnesses cost an estimated £1.5 billion in 2011, and this number continues to increase. Regardless of whether food handling gloves are worn or not, proper hand hygiene is essential to help minimise the spread of these illnesses.

The importance of maintaining hygiene standards in compliance with food safety regulations.

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