Law Puts Squeeze on Bar Fruit

There may soon be a new twist on drinks at your favorite happy hour hot spot: no twist at all.

Imagine your martini came with no olives, and your Corona with no lime. Imagine a pint of Blue Moon without an orange slice.

A New York City bar was reportedly cited recently for a health code violation for failing to use either tongs or latex gloves to add a garnish to a cocktail. It has prompted at least one other Manhattan watering hole, which asked to remain anonymous, to sour on garnishing cocktails with fruit.

The previously obscure regulation, first reported in The New York Times, prohibits bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat foods, such as olives and bar citrus, by bartenders and other food workers.

According to the New York City Health Department, bare-hand contact by infected food handlers has been the third most commonly reported cause of food-borne illness in New York state since 1985. In the early 1990s, changes made to the State Sanitary Code required that bartenders and food workers refrain from bare-hand contact with any ready-to-eat food.

It's nothing new, but you would be hard pressed to find a Big Apple bartender wearing latex gloves.

Some restaurant managers fear the regulation could negatively impact business.

"From a business standpoint, tongs would slow us down way too much," said the manager of a popular Upper West Side bar who declined to be identified. He also implied that latex gloves on bartenders are simply not cool.

Cool matters.

Drink to Your Health?

So how vital is this regulation? Jeffrey Hammond, spokesman for the health department's public affairs group, said that handling garnishes or ice with bare hands has been shown to introduce potential pathogens to a consumer's beverage.

"We have had a number of Hepatitis A and Shigella outbreaks over the years, involving bartenders and food workers who applied garnishes with bare hands," said Hammond. The infective dose, or the number of organisms necessary to cause illness, is very low and easily transmitted, explained Hammond. The experience is similar across the country.

Stanley Reedy, a public health physician of 32 years, agrees.

"I think it calls for continual vigilance," said Reedy. "There's a good reason for the regulations we have regarding food and drink."

Reedy is the medical director of Washtenaw County Public Health in Ann Arbor, Mich. Michigan's food safety guidelines also prohibit bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat foods.

But in the bar setting, does bare-hand contact with lemons and limes placed in alcohol pose less of a risk than the bare handling of other foods?

According to the Food and Drug Administration, most bacteria will not grow in pH levels of 4.6 or lower. Citrus fruit has a pH of about 2. 

"Although the pH of the flesh of lemons and limes is about 2, the less acidic outer skin of the wedge or slice of fruit could also become the vehicle for delivery of the pathogen," said Hammond.

But wouldn't the alcohol kill the germs? Hammond said that regardless of alcohol's potential to kill certain pathogens, it is not considered an approved sanitizer for use in food establishments.

"[There] are other factors, such as the dilution of the alcohol with mixers and the amount of contact time the garnish would have with the alcohol in the beverage, which would reduce the effectiveness even further," he said.

According to health department data from 2006, norovirus, another food-borne illness that causes gastroenteritis (cruise ship sickness), ranks second among food-related infections. Hammond says the alcohol contained within a beverage would not be sufficient to protect a patron from the risk of illness.

If every bartender in New York used tongs or gloves when handling fruit, it would not eliminate the risk of food-borne illness, health advocates say. One reason is that some bars may not carefully wash their fruit before cutting it. Reedy says the regulation is an important one, if not for its direct preventive effect, than for promoting hygiene-conscious behavior. And, customers may appreciate the gesture.

But the manager of the West Side bar rejects that notion. He believes latex gloves belong in a doctor's office, not behind the bar. The only latex products around a bar should be dispensed in the restrooms, he said.

"Latex gloves to me are just pretty creepy," he said.