Oven Mitts as a Vehicle for Cross-Contamination in Commercial Food Service Establishments

Article excerpt

Introduction

One of the least-respected, lowest-ranking tools used in all of commercial food service is referred to as personal protective equipment (PPE), or protective apparel. PPE includes common quilted-cotton mitts, hot-pads, and cotton aprons. Most food service professionals and regulatory officials--if they stop to think about these products at all--view them as sewing one purpose only: to reduce burn injury of employees. Food service operators don't expect much from these products, either, and, in general, that is exactly what the products deliver. Many conventional oven mitts burn up, fall apart, don't last long, and don't provide sufficient protection.

Although oven mitts don't protect very well, protection against burn injury remains the primary function of PPE. Therefore, few people ever consider the oven mitt as a contributor in any way to safe food practice or, conversely, as a major health risk in the commercial kitchen. Health inspectors often inspect kitchens to eliminate sources of contamination but overlook the oven mitt, never considering its role in the spread of bacterial contamination.

It may be surprising for most people, then, to learn that a significant correlation has been established between burn-injury prevention and bacterial contamination. The bad news is that the oven mitt has been identified as a significant source of cross-contamination at not just one, but two, separate and equally critical levels: the mitt's exterior and its interior. The good news is that advanced protective apparel has been developed that contributes to food safety at both levels, that reduces burns far more efficiently than do everyday products, and that does so without costing more than cheap apparel.

NSF International recognized the health risks of the oven mitt in 1996 when, for the first time ever, it created a protocol for the certification of oven mitts (NSF Protocol #96/011/480/2480) that are specifically designed to minimize health risks as well as prevent burns.

NSF found it necessary to create a protocol that evaluates oven mitts for their suitability to commercial food service establishments in terms of food safety. After studying at length the problem of contamination from protective apparel, NSF established several criteria for the materials and design of these garments.

As a result, food service operators now have an alternative to poorly constructed and dangerous "commodity" protective apparel that--although created to mitigate risk--actually contributes to multiple hazards. "Commodity protective apparel" is a generic term for common cotton-terry cloth or quilted-cotton oven mitts that today constitute the norm in the food service industry. It is worth noting that the industry is the largest private-sector employer in the country, yet operates under safety standards that may be inadequate.

The exteriors of commodity oven mitts pose a hazard because they can become contaminated with food matter that penetrates the outer fabric. Contamination occurs by direct contact with materials such as raw or cooked meats and vegetables, fats, greases, oils, and related organic substances that harbor and proliferate bacterial growth. Once organic materials penetrate the fabric of the mitt, they are extremely difficult to extricate. This is especially true because commodity protective apparel is too flimsy to survive laundering and therefore is almost never washed. The contaminated mitt is then used to perform subsequent operations in the kitchen, causing cross-contamination.

The interiors of oven mitts pose a second hazard of contamination--by organic substances that have come into contact with wearers' hands. Food service operators may be smart enough to wash their hands before handling food, but after handling food, few if any think of washing their hands before using an oven mitt. Any substance on the surface of the hand is delivered to the interior of the mitt and then to the hands of subsequent wearers and, of course, on to other objects in the kitchen, including food. …