The Right to Bare Hands


Does Jiro dream of gloves when he makes sushi?

Early this year, the state Department of Health rolled out a new set of rules for restaurants and other food establishments. The main changes: Starting last Monday, restaurants are required to prominently display a green, yellow or red placard, indicating whether they’ve passed inspection, passed conditionally or failed; and the one that caught my attention: no bare-hand contact with food on the plate, which includes sushi.

Really?! Asking a sushi chef to wear gloves is like asking a pianist to wear mittens.

I called the DOH, and it turns out the DOH does allow exceptions. Restaurants need to provide written documentation for health inspectors all the ready-to-eat foods that are touched by bare hands and detail a strict regimen that includes two of the following: double hand washing, nail brushes, hand sanitizer and paid sick leave.

Incidentally, California repealed its ban on bare-hand contact last month, due to restaurant industry outcry on the cost and environmental impact of glove use. Restaurants also argued that gloves aren't necessarily more sanitary, backed up by a CDC study finding restaurant workers wearing gloves less likely to wash their hands than those who don’t.

But Peter Oshiro, environmental health program manager at the DOH, doesn't expect a backlash in Hawaii. “During the public review process, Hawaii’s Food Safety Rules were welcomed by the food industry,” wrote Oshiro in an email. "We are working closely with those few establishments that want to use bare hand contact with food during preparation."

Unlike in California, "the exemption process is practical and manageable while ensuring the safety of food and reducing potential illness," Oshiro wrote. "We are currently finalizing a procedure for industry on this requirement."

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