Senator Advocates Abolition of Hand-Washing Laws in Restaurants

Senator Thom Tillis has clearly never come down with a nasty case of food poisoning.

By Katharine Shilcutt February 3, 2015

That's not Rick Perry after a bad corn dog, but it could be you if you catch a nasty novovirus after eating food prepared by someone who hasn't washed their hands.

Thank God for C-SPAN, the live-streaming cable coverage of daily federal government proceedings, without which we'd never get to witness televised moments of political inanity such as Senator Fritz Hollings talking about Beavis & Butthead's penchant for arson or Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney famously blasting the Department of Defense for requesting $50 million worth of Viagra.

Today, courtesy of C-SPAN, you can witness a totally new level of lunacy as Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina who has ostensibly never been stricken with food poisoning, advocates for the abolition of hand-washing laws in restaurants.

"I was having this discussion with someone and we were at a Starbucks in my district and we were talking about certain regulations where I felt like maybe you should allow businesses to opt out," Tillis begins, reasonably enough. But wait. What regulations is he specifically addressing? "I don't have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy as long as they post a sign that says, 'We don't require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom.' The market will take care of that."

Honestly, of all the health code laws on the books, why target one that's specifically meant to make restaurants safe and sanitary environments for both employees and patrons, and one that poses absolutely no hardship—financial or otherwise—to the restaurant whatsoever?

The Centers for Disease Control has reported that nearly 20 million people came down with food poisoning last year. The major source of those outbreaks? Restaurants. "Infected food workers are frequently the source of these outbreaks, often by touching ready-to-eat foods served in restaurants with their bare hands," the CDC claimed. Of the millions of Americans who catch foodborne illnesses each year, the CDC estimates that 128,000 are hospitalized and another 3,000 die. They die. From food poisoning. Which can, in part, be prevented by enforcing sanitary measures such as hand-washing.

Let's break this down: when a food service worker has E. coli in their system and he goes to the bathroom, that E. coli is easily spread to his hands and to your stomach—if he doesn't wash with soap before touching your food, or silverware, or plates, or straws, or glasses.

Need further proof that abolishing hand-washing regulations is a bad idea? The CDC also reports that 12 percent of food workers report for work—work that puts them in contact with your food—while they are sick, and while they are currently suffering from vomiting and/or diarrhea. There's a reason that hand-washing is recommended across the board as the easiest way to stop the spread of communicable disease: it works. In addition to being incredibly effective against the transmission of everything from E. coli to ebola, it's cheap, it's easy, and it in no way, by no sane person, could ever be construed as a burden on restaurants to enforce.

It's an interesting time to live in America, where we've made so much progress since the days when Upton Sinclair documented horrifyingly unsanitary working conditions in The Jungle and the days when measles killed one-fifth of Hawaii's population yet we're keen to backslide into those very same dark days. All for what? So that a restaurant owner isn't "burdened" with enforcing public health laws? Do we even know what the word "burden" means anymore? Does Senator Tillis?

To be fair to Thom Tillis, his bizarre anti-hand-washing remarks aren't the scariest talking points we've heard today. That honor goes to Senator Rand Paul, who attempted to invoke that most patriotic of ideals—freedom!—in his assessment that vaccinations cause "profound mental disorders." Paul is sticking to his guns on this one despite reams of scientific studies disproving this claim and the fact that Andrew Wakefield—the British doctor whose infamous 1998 report linked vaccines with autism, a report that was later retracted by the journal that published it—was accused of "deliberate fraud" by Britain's General Medical Counsel, citing Wakefield's "dishonesty and misleading conduct" as just two of the many reasons that the idea of any vaccine-autism link should be completely discarded. Oh, and Wakefield's medical license was revoked. But hey, whatever it takes to get elected, guys? Amirite?

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