How gloves and a cloth can give you food poisoning

I was asked how wiping a sandwich bench down with a cloth could give someone food poisoning. Here's my simple scenario, and it really is just a matter of time.

Never complain about a cafe's food safety

Before I begin, the one lesson I learnt from this is “never complain about a cafe’s food safety”, unless you are a blogger about food safety and this is now my fifth blog based on the experience.

In this particular cafe I watched someone preparing sandwiches and I was absolutely amazed (horrified) as to how they used gloves and a cleaning cloth. When I discussed the issue with the owner she could not understand how this was an issue. I tried to explain, but in the back of her mind was still the “no-one has ever had food poisoning here” argument. 

So you be the judge. This is the scenario that I came up with as to how her simple cafe could potentially cause a major food poisoning outbreak, just by the use of gloves and a cloth…

(drum roll)


Villain 1 - the cloth

Villain 1 gets introduced very early in the day. In fact, every day at 6:30 a cloth is placed at the counter where sandwiches are prepared. It then spends the rest of the day happily hidden from view just below the counter.

Unless it is needed!

It’s purpose is simple. It is used to wipe the crumbs off the bench. Just the crumbs. Off the bench. 

It’s not like it is wiping dirty tables. And the bench is thoroughly cleaned every day. And bread is clean. And it is just crumbs.

Villain 2 - the gloves

When it comes to food safety stories, gloves are bit like John Malkovich – they sometimes play the good guy, but are too often the bad guy.

My next post will probably be a rant about gloves. 

Villain 2 enters soon after villain 1. When the first order is placed, they make an appearance. From that point on, they are in more scenes then they should be, and are missing from other scenes where they were meant to be.


That was part of my complaint. I was watching staff where gloves to prepare sandwiches and then go off and get items and then return and continue making sandwiches – all while wearing the same pair of gloves. I also saw other staff reach in and grab food items without gloves on. 

The convoluted plot


From the opening scene, the gloves are in more scenes then they should be, and are missing from other scenes where they were meant to be.


That was part of my complaint. I was watching staff where gloves to prepare sandwiches and then go off and get items and then return and continue making sandwiches – all while wearing the same pair of gloves. I also saw other staff reach in and grab food items without gloves on. 

It was like there was no discernible reason for the gloves. Staff were happy to touch food items with and without gloves on. They were happy to walk around the storeroom and coolroom handling everything.

And then they would magically disappear and be forgotten for a scene or two.

Villain 2 quickly gained notoriety

It didn’t take long to see that the gloves were bad. They were obviously not clean. They were being worn too long, had come into contact with every item in the sandwich selection, including ham and salami, and were cross contaminating everything.

But apart from allergies, the risk was still small. Most of the items were in small trays and the turnover was quick enough that bacteria was not having a chance to grow.

The cafe owner also mentioned that the cabinet was refrigerated. Bacteria did not stand a chance.

But what about the cloth?

The cloth was being handled by a gloved hand. Within minutes of the start of the day, the cloth was being cross-contaminated. Bacteria was introduced into the play.

And the cloth was stored under the bench. It was being stored at the perfect temperature.

And it was used all day, until they closed at 3pm. 

Bacteria had time and temperature. 

But why hasn't it killed anyone yet?

If all of this is true, why hasn’t the cloth become the scourge of the hills?

My guess is because of these 3 factors…

  1. The cloth starts of virtually sterile, and so it is only the introduced bacteria that can grow. 
  2. The cloth is dry and devoid of food for the bacteria, apart from what is added to it throughout the day
  3. Much of what is added is either removed again quickly or spread thinly across the cloth

Waiting for the perfect storm

What we are now waiting for are the extra factors that will build up to create the perfect storm. 

In hind sight people will say it was obvious, and just a matter of time. At the time, however, it would seem like it started like any other day.

So for our cloth and gloves, what would the perfect storm look like?

It probably started with something totally external like a heat wave, much like the ones we are experiencing at the moment.

It may have resulted in some power outages. Which, in turn, may have caused the fridge to warm up. Since the cafe doesn’t have a temperature monitoring system they failed to realise that there had been a breech. 

The following day the staff grab the ham, unaware that it now has the potential to give a couple of customers food poisoning. Note that at this stage it would only be the few customers who have a ham sandwich that would be affected.

But then very quickly the gloves touch the ham and bacteria is quickly transferred across. The sandwich is completed and the cloth is picked up. Transfer is complete.

And we all know what goes well with ham – tomato. The tomatoes are handled and now the gloves are wet. The sandwich hand wipes her gloves on the cloth (and I have footage of her doing exactly this). We now have moisture on the cloth…with the bacteria.

But do you remember the heat wave? The air conditioning is limping along and failing to keep the place cool. There is a hot plate 1m away. It is easily 30° behind the counter.

And then it was someone amazing idea to have “Toastie Tuesdays” and so by 10 o’clock there have been dozens of these ham and tomato concoctions made. Ironically the toasting of the ham killed off much (not all) of the bacteria, and these customers only had mild food poisoning.

Meanwhile that cloth is soaking up more juices from the ham and tomato. It’s a frantic morning (after all, it is “Toastie Tuesday”) and before we know it, it is lunch time.

Now the cloth has been in use for 6 hours. Bacteria is rampant. The cloth is a killing force. Now every drop of moisture on the cloth is a  primordial soup mix. 

Which means that every time anyone touches it, they have enough bacteria to make someone sick. And then they touch a piece of bread, or roll, or …anything … and it is now contaminated. 

And now every sandwich leaving the cafe has the potential to kill. It means that every burger (with its fresh lettuce and tomato) will be back with a vengeance. It even means that the muffin won’t be kept down long enough to find its way onto your hips.

Because the perfect storm just ripped through a small industrial cafe.


And all it took...

In this hypothetical, there are already two food safety issues feeding off each other. All it took for the perfect storm was a power failure overnight and that triggered the other two. 

Will this happen? Who knows. Hopefully not.

Can this happen? Absolutely.

The sequel

Unfortunately the sequel to this story doesn’t have much to do with a cafe.

It initially has a lot to do with the media and social media. 

It also had a lot to do with hospitals and GPs. 

The sensational version of this story also had coroners and funeral directors in it.

Eventually the cafe reopened, but closed within weeks. It was a ghost town. They couldn’t sell it because of its reputation. The owners lost everything. The staff lost their jobs. They couldn’t get jobs in hospitality for years.

And then the lawyers started. Civil cases. Criminal cases. 

And long after the dust settled and the name of the cafe was long forgotten by the public, there were still a dozen victims who carry the side effects of food poisoning with them daily.

All because

All of this because:

  • the owner didn’t want to spend money on changing gloves frequently
  • and thought it was OK to handle food and non food items with gloves and not change them
  • and was happy to use the same cloth all day to wipe down a bench
  • and didn’t have remote monitoring on their fridges and freezers

Removing one of them would have avoided the perfect storm. Removing all of them would have avoided a minor storm.

Just because no-one has had food poisoning yet doesn’t mean you are in the clear. It may mean the perfect storm is brewing and when it hits…

More Info?

Follow Us

Share this post