Gloves are intended to protect product intended for consumer consumption from contamination, but what happens when it is the gloves themselves end up being the source of contamination. We all know that clean gloves can become contaminated during use, but what about the unexpected sources of contamination?  

A grower found out the hard way when it was discovered that the source of an ortho-phenylphenol (OPP) chemical contamination of its product was the food-grade gloves the handlers were wearing.

In this case, the product was cannabis that was being harvested in the field. But it is a situation that could occur with any product or ingredient intended for any form of human consumption – at any step in the supply chain where product is handled from harvest to manufacturing to foodservice.

When properly used, gloves can reduce the potential for contamination, but glove choice and handling are critical aspects of food safety – for consumer safety as well as regulatory compliance and business continuity. Depending on the product, amount and type of contaminant, etc., fines can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars – in addition to the actual cost of the recall. Auditors will look for applicable use of gloves, including glove type, storage, wearing, and changing. Following are recommendations for each.

  1. Glove choice. Gloves should always be latex-free, powder-free, and designated as FDA compliant food grade. Many people are allergic to latex, so it is best to avoid its use; and any residue on gloves can cause product or contact-surface contamination, so powdered gloves should never be used. It also is advisable to ensure that even food-grade gloves are purchased from a reliable supplier, as once they are FDA approved, gloves are not subject to ongoing controls.
  2. Storage. Store open glove boxes on a clean, dry, and sanitary surface away from potential overhead contamination. If gloves are stored near a handwashing station, they risk being contaminated by water splashed from wet hands. Additionally, if workers do not properly dry their hands before reaching into a box for gloves, they can drip moisture, which can lead to microbiological growth on the surface. Additionally workers should be advised to only take gloves from their boxes when they will be immediately donning them. Keeping an extra set of gloves in one’s pocket is not recommended.
  3. Handwashing. Even in industries where handwashing has always been enforced, it has taken on a new focus for COVID-19 protections. So the proper steps of handwashing – wet hands, apply soap, scrub for 20 seconds, use finger brush (as needed), rinse and dry – have been regularly published. What isn’t always as well communicated is the potential contamination from the water faucet knobs themselves. While some facilities have automated systems, those that don’t should recommend that workers use a paper towel to turn off the faucet to avoid re-contaminating the hands after cleaning – which can, in turn, contaminate a fresh pair of gloves.
  4. Donning gloves. Pulling and donning fresh gloves also require special care. It is best to handle the gloves at the opening rather than at the fingers to reduce the potential of contamination of the fingers which have the most product contact. To help counter any lack of sanitation that could have occurred at the glove manufacturing plant, it is recommended that the gloved hands be again washed or sanitized prior to handling food/product.
  5. Changing gloves. Even when a worker continues a task without stop, it is recommended that gloves be changed every two hours – or more if a task warrants it. Additionally, gloves should be changed whenever changes tasks, touches the face, uses the restroom, eats, etc. Anytime gloves are changed, thorough handwashing after removal, then prior to donning new gloves is required, and washing or sanitizing of new gloves after donning is recommended.

Gloves can create a false sense of safety and precaution, which is why each of these steps is critical. Again, illustrating the grower’s situation – by the time the grower became aware of the issue, most of the compromised batches had already been sold, necessitating the recall. Thus, use of gloves and achieving a best outcome should be in the food safety culture of any establishment handling a product or ingredient intended for human consumption (see Figure 1 below).

For food safety, don and doff gloves by holding the open end; turn faucets off with a paper towel.
Proper hand hygiene and glove usage can minimize risk. For food safety, don and doff gloves by holding the open end; turn faucets off with a paper towel. However, one shouldn't be too reliant on gloves being the end-all-be-all for food safety.

With continuous oversight and education embedded into its culture, gloves will help reduce the risk of contamination, and help protect consumers and your business. But always keep in mind the unexpected, and remember that other risks can emerge when you least expect them. It is always worth taking time to ensure that anything you are using that comes into contact with food is safe to use – even the gloves.

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