In this space, we previously sounded the alarm on the risk of food-borne illness and outbreaks by revealing the wide-ranging potential for contamination from disposable gloves. The issue figures so prominently that we’ve spent years conducting research, testing, and analysis to determine precisely where the risk lie—and how to overcome these issues. The final results have recently been made public and should give pause to anyone in the food-handling that rely upon what are assumed to be clean, intact gloves.
Testing, Analysis, and Findings
Over the last five years, we have invested heavily in third-party R&D to ascertain the real risks by independently analyzing 2,800 new and unused disposable gloves from 26 different brands. In conjunction with the B. Michaels Group, led by leading microbiologist Barry Michaels, our findings were presented at the 2019, 2021, and 2022 annual conferences of the International Association of Food Protection (IAFP). But the final results were most troublesome, with human fecal indicators found on over 50 percent of the glove samples tested. That’s in addition to over 250 different viable microbial species found to be present on both the inside and outside glove surfaces. These included common food-borne pathogens such as Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pneumoniae, and even Bacillus anthracis (more commonly known as Anthrax). These glove samples were right out of the box, unused, untouched and unopened prior to testing.
In light of these results, many in the food handling industry—even those who consider themselves fairly informed—must be wondering how results such as these are remotely possible? As it turns out, the food safety industry isn’t doing much to ensure that glove wearers aren’t contributing to the risk of contamination within the supply chain. Short of that, it’s past time for both manufacturers and suppliers to collaborate—and contribute—to solving this real risk to the food industry.
Inadequacy in Compliance Standards
In my opinion, testing and compliance standards for food-safe gloves are under-regulated and inadequate at best. Glove testing requirements do not have to be officially confirmed, nor conducted on either a regular or even routine basis. To achieve FDA (21 CFR 177) compliance for food handling, glove manufacturers need only to pass these testing requirements once. Beyond that, these tests do not have an expiry date! It’s loopholes such as these that open the door for manufacturers to alter raw material composition and even their own quality assurance standards to reduce costs. This greatly enhances the possibility of mislabeled and fraudulent products, as well as becoming the probable cause of toxic and pathogenic glove contamination from filthy water sources and unhygienic practices.
The irony? Gloves which are deemed to be FDA Compliant for Food Handling may not be food-safe after all. What that leaves us with is an inadequate glove manufacturer “honor system” in which unscrupulous suppliers can “game” the system. If the FDA and other regulatory agencies are going to leave these clearly visible food safety gaps, then perhaps it’s up to individual suppliers and distributors to close it ourselves.
How We Can All Collectively Do Better
The participants in the glove industry could be doing a better job of policing ourselves, and even our competition. At a very minimum, we should all be participating in a personal honor system that includes the implementation of impactful initiatives that lessen the use of cheap and potentially toxic raw ingredients. This also extends to the manufacturing production shortcuts which contribute to heightened risks of contamination. We could all do collectively better if we simply adopted common sense measures and initiatives such as:
Traceability—this is about protecting the full spectrum of the supply chain, an initiative that even the FDA has shown an interest in seeing implemented on a global scale. Traceability is a means to determine the identification, tracking, and even trace elements of a product’s composition as it moves through the different stages in the supply chain. Traceability can be implemented as simply as placing a QR code on all exterior packaging that verifies the chemical signature of raw materials used in the glove-making process.
Supplier Code of Conduct and Independent Audits—these measures would ensure proof of ethical sourcing, consistently high quality control measures, and the protection of labor rights on a global scale. We must do a better job in avoiding unscrupulous suppliers and product manufacturers who routinely look the other way when it comes to abuse and exploitation in the workplace with their unethical labor and unhygienic manufacturing practices.
Third-Party Product Verification—annual third party laboratory tests that ensure the verification of raw materials, an adequate AQL score, and the reduction of cross-contamination risk in the manufacturing stage, would all be welcome changes from the current systems in place.
Of course, it’s true that these measures would require both effort and capital, but the costs are miniscule when compared to the financial and reputational burden of a potential food or product-related recall. It’s simply the responsible thing to do when it comes to protecting your brand, products, and glove wearers in the food handling industry and beyond. If the current global playing field isn’t ready to hold everyone to these higher standards, it’s high time we did so on our own.
Just the same, we encourage end users in the food manufacturing and handling industries to consider more than just pricing when it comes to sourcing quality disposable gloves—or any other products, for that matter. After all, we’re all capable of conducting our own due diligence. The next time you’re ready to order new products or supplies, do your own research and request trial samples. Make a pledge to ensure you source products solely from verifiable vendors and suppliers.
It really wouldn’t be that difficult to change things for the better, resulting in a safer community for all glove-wearing industries. Just imagine what a world we’d live in if we all stepped up and did our part. Never forget that even a little effort is capable of going a long way.
Steve Ardagh, “The Glove Guy,” is the founder and CEO of Eagle Protect, a disposable glove supplier dedicated to the responsible sourcing of quality products that ensure customer safety and impact reduction, ultimately mitigating customers’ risk. Eagle Protect is the only global PPE supplier that is a Certified B Corporation, a designation that a business has met the highest standards of verified performance, accountability, and transparency. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.