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Vinyl gloves: a food safety hazard?

23 June 2018

John Lambeth discusses at the potential impact that recent food hygiene scares could have on the food industry and asks whether one of the most traditional solutions to prevent cross-contamination could actually be part of the problem? 

In the wake of the high profile failures in basic food hygiene standards within the UK food processing sector, and within the meat processing and manufacturing sectors in particular, there is a growing requirement for the food industry to demonstrate greater accountability – from plough to plate.

A recent report from Cranswick and Veris Strategies highlighted a likely growth in consumer influence disrupting the sector and the rise of what has been called ‘radical transparency’ driving clearer food provenance. For the first time, the call to to action to improve food safety has been entwined with increased consumer power, influence and demand for greater transparency.

A catalyst for change?
Put simply, radical transparency describes actions and approaches that radically increase the openness of processes and data. But, will it become a real catalyst for change in the food sector?

Commenting on the finding of a 2017 report which highlighted the fact that one-in-four slaughterhouses were failing to take basic hygiene precautions to stop contaminated meat reaching the public, Ron Spellman of the European Food and Meat Inspectors Association (EWFC), said that the failure of 86 slaughterhouses to meet all the hygiene regulations would ‘increase the risk’ of dangerous bacteria being transferred to the meat the consumer will receive.’ 

Even before the damaging headlines, the reality is that every year pre-2017, failures in food hygiene standards have resulted in everything from product recalls to consumer illness and in some cases have caused the death of members of the public.

While there are multiple reasons that standards slip, it is a timely reminder of the absolute importance of a thorough approach to hygiene, hand hygiene and cross contamination prevention. Much of this can be focused on workers and their critical position as both potential hero and villain in the food hygiene process.

Taking stock
Foodborne illnesses affect about one million people in the UK each year, according to official estimates, with around 20,000 people admitted to hospital and 500 deaths annually.

So any move towards a more transparent, ‘open-kitchen’ approach to food hygiene standards and processes, as the Cranswick Report suggests, really should be welcomed – both commercially and reputationally – given the impact they have had on those businesses at the centre of the most recent ones.

If radical transparency does become the watchword in the industry it will provide an opportunity for food manufacturers to take a fresh look at the issue. And for many, one of the big opportunities for positive change will be to revisit the importance of hand hygiene.

Today hands are still responsible for the spread of an estimated 80% of common infectious diseases. Germs can survive on any surface you touch for over two hours, according to the European Centre of Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

Solution or problem
One element that has been considered to be part of the hygiene solution within food processing may actually have been part of the problem. It is widely accepted that good hygiene is all about controlling harmful bacteria because the impact that contamination can have is devastating. Reputational integrity and success (or otherwise) really can be placed very firmly in the hands of workers and the quality of hygiene procedures.

For anyone responsible for managing hygiene, safety and HACCP in food processing, the challenges and considerations are many including:

  • Employee safety – PPE 
  • Machine safety – Machine guards 
  • Hygiene policies 
  • Manufacturing procedures – Foreign objects falling into product 
  • Bacteria and cross contamination 
  • Consumer safety – Product recalls 
Rightly, gloves are seen as a necessary part of avoiding cross-contamination, and for many companies this results in workers being provided with vinyl gloves. So it may come as a surprise that the latest research into the performance of vinyl gloves has cast serious concerns over the suitability of the material in food processing environments.

Due to the microstructural organisation of vinyl disposable gloves, there are associated risks that limit their performance and affect barrier protection. These include:

• Plasticisers used to manufacture the gloves weakens the vinyl structure causing micro-punctures to occur within only a few hand flexes or food handling tasks undertaken by the wearer. In some cases vinyl gloves begin leaking as soon as they are donned.
• Numerous studies have proven that vinyl gloves have an increased permeability to bacteria and virus, further compromising food safety.
• It is estimated that between 50% and 90% of punctures go unrecognised by wearers, resulting in drops of contamination smeared over surfaces contacted by gloves and contamination of food.
• Phthalates often represent up to 45% (by weight) of the material used in vinyl gloves, despite most phthalates being banned for contact with fatty foodstuffs
• Vinyl disposable gloves have a poor resistance to stretch and elongation. With reduced elasticity and flexibility, a thicker glove is often required, increasing glove resistance and bulkiness, which can result in repetitive fatigue injuries and contact trauma to the wearers fingers and thumbs.
• Vinyl gloves are typically ill-fitting, which can contribute to higher levels of allergic contact dermatitis – their disposal can also give rise to emission of several toxic pollutants.

Marks and Spencer was so concerned about the issues surrounding vinyl that it implemented a policy in 2015 banning the use of packaging containing a list of substances including phthalates and vinyl.

Despite growing evidence to support the use of vinyl alternatives in food applications many companies are still providing workers with vinyl gloves to handle food.

So when companies look at the potential impact that radical transparency could bring, a review of hand hygiene procedures and appropriate glove selection really should go hand-in-glove with any wider reviews in any food handling processes undertaken.

Workers are on the front line in the fight against food contamination and maintaining food hygiene standards so providing them with a barrier that may not only be ineffective, but which could, potentially, create more problems than it solves, does start to seem like much more than a false economy and should serve as a major warning to food processors about the need to review hygiene and food safety practices.

To find out more about Unigloves new Fortified nitrile antimicrobial gloves visit:

John Lambeth is technical manager at Unigloves.

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