New legislation effective January 1 in California banning food employees from touching “ready-to-eat” food with their bare hands is causing an uproar in the bartender community. Ready-to-eat food must now be handled with “suitable utensils,” effectively requiring bartenders to wear gloves when making drinks that contain something edible, including cocktail basics such as lime and mint. As of January 28, over 9,000 people have signed the petition on change.org to exempt bartenders from this requirement. However, limiting the exemption to bartenders does not go far enough. Wine and beer tasting room employees will also be required to wear gloves if they serve food in addition to drinks at the tasting room, which is common practice at many locations. While larger brewpubs and wineries often have commercial kitchens with staff that prepare food for guests, many smaller operations do not. For example, under this law leanly staffed establishments may now have to require their tasting room employees to don gloves between pours in order to prepare a cheese and cracker plate ordered to accompany a tasting unless there is a dedicated employee for food service that is properly outfitted. This requirement is not only esthetically irksome, but wasteful and unwieldy.
It is not a foregone conclusion that bartenders and tasting room employees will be wearing gloves in the immediate future. As reported by NPR, California Assemblyman Richard Pan stated that "the purpose of the law was not to force everyone to wear gloves, as much as to ensure that we have cleanliness and food safety in restaurants." Indeed, the requirement can be avoided by applying for prior approval from the appropriate regulatory authority (usually local health agencies), and maintaining documentation regarding food safety procedures, health policies and special training for food employees. However, applying for this exemption is no small burden for bars and tasting rooms - and local health agencies will no doubt be inundated with exemption requests.
While we have been informed that no penalties will be issued for six months while proprietors adjust to the new requirements, it will be interesting to see how health department and other regulators enforce the new requirements in establishments that are not primarily in the business of serving food. Right now the ABC does have the authority to enforce (and does enforce) the health laws in establishments that serve alcoholic beverages. Check back for updates in the near future.