Hands On: Glove-Making CEO Cleans Up Processing Industries

Eagle Protect founder Ardagh investigates U.S. manufacture of pristine gloves for food and medical processing.

Late last month, President Biden signed an executive order calling for greater resilience in U.S. supply chains for a variety of essential products ranging from personal protective equipment to semiconductor chips. Steve Ardagh is ready to step into the breach with what he calls the cleanest disposable gloves in the world.

Ardagh is CEO of Eagle Protect PBC, which ships pristine gloves into the United States for food and medical manufacturers and now is scouting the possibility of stateside factories that would fit into Biden’s plan for reducing American dependence on Asian suppliers of important stuff.

“We’re working on a project for a nitrile-glove factory that would be set up in the United States to supply government organizations,” Ardagh told Chief Executive about his company that was founded in New Zealand and now is based in South Lake Tahoe, California. “But that may not be a long-term answer, because realistically you can’t produce gloves in the U.S. like you can in Malaysia or China.

“So we are focusing on a way to provide hyperlocal supplies of gloves as PPE, in early conversations with people like the University of California-Davis to use modern technologies such as 3D printing and materials science, to produce protective barriers locally. That could go right down to the level of being based at a food plant.”

If he were able to navigate Eagle Protect into a position as a preferred domestic manufacturer of disposable gloves, it would be at least the second time Ardagh has jumped on the manufacturing zeitgeist and massaged out a profitable outcome.

He founded Eagle Protect in New Zealand 13 year ago to supply disposable gloves to the island nation’s food industries, which account for about half of its GDP. His company now supplies about 80 percent of that sector in New Zealand, Ardagh said, and in 2016 he turned his sights to the U.S.

Ardagh’s essential proposition is to solve the problem of contaminated gloves in the food and medical industries. Foodborne illnesses remain a huge scourge in the U.S. and worldwide despite decades of government and industry attention to the problem. And, of course, production of PPE suddenly came into focus amid Covid-19.

Disposable gloves used in food-processing plants or by food handlers, or in health-care uses, aren’t legally required to be clean, Ardagh said. “People think when you open a box of gloves for some reason they should be clean and safe,” he said. “Gloves are a Zone 1 food-safety item, at the same level as a pair of tongs or a surface used for cutting. But there’s no legal requirement for gloves to be clean” in the United States or in New Zealand and the many other countries that follow U.S. Food & Drug Administration protocols.

“They must have certain physical properties, and there are requirements so they don’t leach chemicals into food. But there are no checks for cleanliness for gloves.”

Ardagh teamed with Barry Michaels, a Florida-based microbiologist and consultant, to check 26 brands of disposable gloves coming into the United States, mostly from Asian manufacturers. They found “260 types of bacteria, feces, mold, fungus and skin cells,” Ardagh said. “There were lots of food-spoilage bacteria and pathogens and some human bacteria like e. coli.

Also problematic, Ardagh said, is that “natural” gloves often include chemicals such as butadiene, a suspected carcinogen that is on California’s Proposition 65 list of problematic substances. Latex gloves cause allergy problems.

So Eagle Protect’s gloves are made of nitrile, a synthetic co-polymer, in factories in China, Malaysia and Thailand. The company hired a manufacturer-audit organization, and Ardagh personally visits every factory. Eagle Protect now uses mass spectrometry to make sure its suppliers are shipping the actual gloves it’s ordered.

“We arrived in the U.S. with the mission of saving the world one glove at a time,” Ardagh said. “The food industry certainly needs it. And the pandemic has helped us accelerate and focus on medical as well.”