Is it okay for a restaurant worker to handle food with bare hands?

BRAZOS COUNTY, Tex. (KBTX)- Every Thursday night at 10 p.m. we air the Restaurant Report Card on KBTX and one of the most common questions we receive is this:

"A restaurant employee touched my food with their bare hands! Is that okay?"

We reached out to the Brazos County Health District for clarification on the rules and here's what they told us:

"This is a common question asked of health inspectors, and while it may seem black and white, the answer is not so simple.

First of all, it is important to understand that we are talking about ready to eat foods. These are foods that will not be cooked or processed any further before serving. It is always okay, after proper handwashing, for the pizza employee to toss your dough into the air using his/her bare hands. The dough will be cooked before it will be consumed. But what about the lettuce, tomato, and pickle that will be placed on your burger, or the tortilla for your taco?

The answer is NO for daycares, nursing homes, hospitals, etc.
Employees working in an establishment that serves a highly susceptible population are never allowed to handle ready to eat foods with their bare hands. A highly susceptible population includes individuals who are prone to the more serious effects of foodborne illness. This would include establishments that serve the very young, the elderly, or individuals who are immuno-compromised. Examples include daycares, nursing homes, and hospitals. Employees working in these types of establishments must by law use gloves, utensils, or other barriers to handle ready to eat foods.

The answer is YES in other places BUT only if....
Many establishments that serve a more general population also require employees to wear gloves or use utensils when handling ready to eat foods. However, the Texas Food Establishment Rules allow for bare hand contact when appropriate controls have been taken. These rules, also known as TFER, govern food establishments in Texas. Restaurant managers who choose to allow employees to handle ready to eat foods with their bare hands must follow at least two control measures after proper handwashing.

These control measures may include use of hand sanitizer, timers which govern how often and for how long hands must be washed, and others approved by the Health District. Employees must also receive training in proper handwashing and when to report illness to their supervisors. Brazos County Health District has a documentation form to help establishments follow the correct procedures. The manager also must attach a separate sheet to the documentation form listing specific foods that will be barehanded, as well as special food handling procedures and an employee health policy. This document must be approved by Brazos County Health District.

So which method is safer?
There are advantages and disadvantages on both sides. Many viruses can remain on your hands even after proper handwashing and use of hand sanitizer, which is an advantage of wearing gloves. However, gloves can become easily contaminated, giving employees a false sense of security and can spread bacteria and viruses to other surfaces and food. Proponents of bare hand contact feel like an employee knows when their hands become contaminated more easily than they realize when gloves become contaminated.

Whichever method a restaurant chooses, proper handwashing is key to ensuring safe food. Brazos County Health District is dedicated to helping establishments handle food safely through education and the inspection process!