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In Defense of Burdensome Government Regulations

The year has just begun, but 2015 is shaping up to be a good one for those who worry about the burdens placed on businesses by government regulations.

In January, Lynn Liddle--an executive vice president for Domino's Pizza--complained that new FDA regulations requiring restaurant chains to post calorie content would be "unworkable". This, despite the fact that the FDA has not issued its final guidelines explaining how to comply, and despite the fact that Domino's already offers an online calorie calculator that can account for any combination of crust, cheese, and toppings.

But Liddle does have a point; there are ways the FDA could implement the final guidelines that would make it difficult for businesses to comply. Perhaps her complaints are simply an attempt to promote a more business-friendly guideline.

Then in February, freshman Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina reminisced about a conversation he had with a woman at Starbucks a few years ago, in which he claimed the government should not require restaurant employees to wash their hands after using the restroom.

“I said: ‘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,”’” he recalled, as the audience chuckled. “The market will take care of that.’”

Comedian Jon Stewart joked that Tillis is merely proposing replacing one sign with another. But there's more to it than that. Hand washing regulations don't just vaguely tell employees to wash their hands; in most states the law specifies where to wash, how many seconds, what kind of soap to use, the temperature of the water, and what to dry off with. To restaurant owners, it may feel like the government is micromanaging their bathroom.

But there's a reason for all that. In the early 20th century, Mary Mallon worked as a private cook for several families in New York. She never stayed long, because every family that hired her soon had an outbreak of typhoid fever. Though she admitted to poor hygiene, Mallon denied being the source of the typhoid because she never showed symptoms herself. But the pattern was undeniable. By they time health officials tracked her down, Mallon had infected more than 50 people, three of whom died. Mallon was arrested and forced to give stool and urine samples. But even after doctors found evidence of live typhoid bacteria in her gallbladder, Mallon continued to believe she was an innocent victim persecuted by the authorities.

More recently in Thom Tillis' own state of North Carolina, multiple health code violations at the All American Grill at Holiday Inn Bordeaux in Fayetteville led to an outbreak of salmonella in 2013. The previous year, an employee at Dixie Donuts in Wilkesboro worked four days after contracting hepatitis A, possibly exposing patrons to the disease. (Hepatitis can be prevented through vaccination, but that's another issue.)

Some restaurant owners may find health code regulations burdensome, but they exist for a reason. Poor hygiene among food preparation workers leads to disease and death. Restaurant patrons have a reasonable expectation that the people making their food are washing their hands after using the restroom, keeping the kitchen area clean, and staying home when sick.

No doubt government regulations place burdensome restrictions on business owners. It cuts into profits if you get fined because the kitchen floor wasn't cleaned or the bathroom soap dispenser wasn't refilled promptly. But these regulations keep us all safer and healthier than we would be without them.

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