Q: How much does the use of disposable gloves at deli counters and cafeterias help prevent the spread of pathogens?
A: It depends on many factors. People often take plastic gloves as a sign that the wearer is meticulous about cleanliness. But that isn’t necessarily so. Dirty gloves are like dirty hands—bacteria and viruses can thrive in either locale.
If the food preparer has just stifled a sneeze or cough in the gloves before making your sandwich, used a gloved hand to put raw chicken on the grill before making your salad, or handled cash or touched other surfaces before slicing your meat, without changing gloves, you are no better off than if the worker had been barehanded. Microbes stick well to gloves and can be fairly hard to wash off.
Handwashing is essential—before donning gloves and after removing them. Indeed, workers who keep their hands really clean don’t need gloves. Gloves do offer the advantage of protecting hands from harsh cleansers or from such foods as hot peppers.
Many states now mandate or suggest the use of gloves in food service. But you might watch to see if the preparer has put on a new pair, and if not, politely request that he or she do so.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.
Last updated July 2019.
Also see Food Poisoning Facts.