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Is It Enough to Idly Hope Our Chef Won't Poison Us?

02/10/2015 09:50 am ET | Updated Apr 12, 2015

A chef, a prep-cook and a waiter walk into a rest room.

A sign over the sink says: "Have you washed your hands?"

They say, "No, but I suppose we should, now you mention it..."

Perhaps not the most hilarious attempt at a joke. But when it comes to the people whose business it is to work with food, hygiene isn't a joke. Every person who touches the food that somebody else is going to eat has a social covenant with that unknown eater: I won't make you sick. But is that social covenant enough?

A single gram of poop can contain 10 million viruses and a million bacteria. And yet just 18 norovirus particles, invisible to the naked eye, are all that's needed to cause the most common illness from contaminated food. Every year norovirus causes 19-21 million illnesses, and 570-800 deaths in the U.S., and there are many other viruses and bacteria that can cause illnesses.

We don't just sit back and idly hope we won't be poisoned when we eat at a restaurant; currently we are reassured that restaurant workers are obliged by law not to smear their poop-derived, illness-causing germs over our steak or salad, thanks to a requirement for employees to wash their hands after using the toilet. We can eat our food safe in the knowledge that someone is making sure this establishment is meeting the basic hygiene standards.

However, according to Senator Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, this requirement is excessive. Like everyone else, Tillis recognizes that restaurant workers must practice good hand-washing-with-soap behaviors at critical times to avoid food-borne illnesses. But he recently stated that they shouldn't be obliged to do so. Rather, Tillis argues that the owners of restaurants should have the option of scrapping hand washing and instead letting their customers know that Chef Poop-Fingers will be preparing their candlelit meal, with the implication that, thanks to his special ingredient, norovirus, the romantic mood may be interrupted at a key moment by diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain.

Tillis argues that allowing restauranteurs to decide whether or not to poison their customers should be a business decision, not a legal one, and that if restauranteurs choose not to enforce proper hand washing, after a few hundred customers have staggered to the hospital clutching their abdomen, the market will speak for itself and shut the place down. It probably would. But in the meantime, what about all the victims? Not everyone has the luxury of making an unrestricted and fully informed choice about where they eat. Does that mean they deserve diarrhea, or to die of an infection transmitted to them at the whim of a chef who decided not to wash his or her hands?

At the end of the day, it's a bit like saying, 'We have this toy that can break children's arms. Hey, if the manufacturer's okay with it, let's put it on the market: if enough children get hurt, the business will eventually fail, so all's well that ends well.' Except, perhaps, for the children with the broken arms.

Hand hygiene is an essential part of food safety. It's not like a restauranteur deciding what wallpaper to display, or whether to serve only artisanal apples. When it comes to public health, consumer safety needs to be a priority, elevated above the ebb and flow of market forces, and properly monitored. It's not okay to just wait and see what the market does. Because real people will be harmed in the process. They trusted you, Chef Poop-Fingers.

We have a social covenant to not kill or harm each other. It's disturbing when people want to opt out of making that official.