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Would You Eat At A Restaurant That Skipped The Hand-Washing?

Hand-washing: one of public health's most powerful weapons, or undue regulatory burden?
Hand-washing: one of public health's most powerful weapons, or undue regulatory burden?

Apparently, making restaurant workers wash their hands before exiting the bathroom is a sign of regulation gone overboard.

At least that's what Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina suggested on Monday during a discussion at the Bipartisan Policy Center. When discussing onerous regulations on business, Tillis brought up hand-washing rules at eateries to illustrate his point.

"I don't have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy," Tillis said, "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."

"That's probably one where every business that did that would go out of business," he noted. "But I think it's good to illustrate the point that that's the sort of mentality that we need to have to reduce the regulatory burden on this country."

If you watch the video above, you'll see that Tillis' comments elicited chuckles from the crowd. But let there be no mistake: He wasn't kidding.

When questioned about his stance by an Associated Press reporter on Tuesday, the freshman senator stood his ground.

"Sometimes there are regulations that maybe we want to set a direction, but then let those who are regulated decide whether or not it makes sense," he told AP. They might pay a huge price, he said, but "they get to make that decision versus government."

With all due respect, senator, there are lots of things about which reasonable people can disagree. The importance of hand-washing is not one of them. As our friends on NPR's Shots blog recently noted, "Hand-washing is one of the most important tools in public health. It can keep kids from getting the flu, prevent the spread of disease and keep infections at bay."

And when it comes to restaurants, the FDA says proper hand-washing is "the most important part" of serving safe food to customers. To put it more bluntly: It "reduces the spread of fecal-oral pathogens from the hands of a food employee to foods."


To be fair, Tillis seems to acknowledge the importance of hand-washing — his beef is with the idea of mandating the practice. But research suggests that if you want people to scour their hands properly after a trip to the toilet, it's best to be in their face about it.

The consequences of skipping those good hygiene rules can be serious for diners. Just ask the 100 people who got sick with salmonella in 2013 after eating at an All American Grill in Tillis' home state. As Bloomberg News reports:

"The health department identified several health violations that could have contributed to food cross-contamination, including the fact that the hand washing sink was out of paper towels and soap, and didn't have sufficient hot water, all factors that 'could serve as a deterrent to hand washing or render it ineffective,' according to the department."

For the record, "proper hand-washing" means scrubbing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds — or, about as long as it takes to sing the chorus of Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," as the folks at NPR Music have helpfully suggested.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.