The appeal of buffets is clear: Why choose one menu item when you can have it all? But with increased quantity often comes decreased quality. And, in the case of buffets, a potential health risk.
Due to their large quantities of food and serve-yourself setup, buffets can be hotbeds of germs and bacteria that can cause foodborne illness, which affect 1 in 6 Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That doesn’t mean you can never eat at a buffet again, but you should be cautious. Read on to find out what food safety experts say you should avoid in order to reduce your risk of falling ill after your next buffet visit.
Avoid all items at buffets with disengaged management.
The first thing you can do before you start piling food on your plate is to make sure the food bar is up to par. This means taking a lap of the restaurant before you arrive to see that the serving stations are clean, each dish has its own serving utensil, and the overall establishment is clean.
The restaurant staff should also be present and attentive, Martin Bucknavage, a senior food safety educator at Penn State, told INSIDER. Staff should be”removing food before it looks less-than-fresh, making sure patrons are following the rules, cleaning spills and removing food debris, and checking temperatures,” he said.
What they shouldn’t be doing is taking old food and dumping it on top of a new batch of food. Practices like that can contaminate new food and make customers sick.
Say no to wilted lettuce and other sorry-looking foods at buffets.
They say you eat with your eyes first, and you certainly should if you’re eating at a buffet.
Specifically, look out for food that has lost its integrity, like lettuce that has wilted, food that has dried out, or dishes that have “expressed their liquids into the container in which they are stored,” Bucknavage said. These are usually signed that food has been sitting out too long and possibly turned into a breeding ground for bacteria.
Steer clear of food that’s not kept at the proper temperature.
One of the buffet staff’s most important job is making sure the hot food stays hot and the cold food stays cold.
“Stay out of the danger zone,” or anywhere between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, Randy Worobo, a food science professor at Cornell, told INSIDER. At those temperatures, and especially around body temperature (98 degrees Fahrenheit), foodborne pathogens grow fast.
If something is supposed to be eaten cold and is stored on ice, make sure the food is actually on ice and not a pool of water. In the case of something like shrimp cocktail, which is cooked but served cold, the food should be cooled before being placed on the ice rather than cooled by the ice.
Additionally, hot food should be served hot – not lukewarm. “If the hot table isn’t properly heated by steam or a hot water bath, then the food cools down to the danger zone,” Worobo said,
Be wary of anything raw at buffets.
Piling raw seafood on your plate might seem like an effective way to get your money’s worth at a buffet. But raw foods miss the crucial “kill step,” where bacteria is killed through cooking, Shelley Feist, executive director at the Partnership for Food Safety Education told INSIDER.
The Food and Drug Administration dictates that fish that is to be served raw must be frozen to kill potential parasites within it. However, there’s no way to know if the seafood at a buffet has been frozen. Even if it has, that doesn’t prevent external bacteria that otherwise would have been killed during the cooking process from infiltrating the seafood.
It’s not just raw seafood you should worry about. Even fresh produce like the greens at the salad bar or sliced fruit can be risky to eat because they too skip the important “kill step.”
If you’re set on serving yourself a salad or other raw foods, make sure they’re being stored at the proper temperature. People who have compromised immune systems should avoid raw foods and stick to hot, cooked foods, Feist said.
Don’t eat buffet food that’s been mishandled by other patrons.
Buffet management can do their best to ensure that the food they put out is safe and being managed properly, but they can’t monitor every dinner they serve. One customer can use a ladle to scoop out one serving of food and then use the same ladle to scoop out a serving of different food, thus contaminating a whole batch of food for others.
Look out for diners who use their hands to handle food, use their own utensils to serve themselves, reuse their dirty plates to get more food, and put back items.
If you observe unsanitary practices, it’s in the best interest of others to alert the staff. If you can do so tactfully, Worobo recommends pointing out the error to the wrongdoer, too. “I’d like to see customers educate other customers,” he said.