Also note how much attention employees pay to the food. "Look to see if the wait staff is coming around and maintaining the food, checking the temperature, stirring the food, replacing the food when the pans are nearly empty," says Carol Chase, senior public health sanitarian with the Tompkins County Health Department in upstate New York. Instead of pouring new food into old pans, employees should be switching out containers to prevent traces of old food from remaining on the buffet too long, she adds.
Look, too, for warning signs that food is being neglected. That dried-out pork or browned, wilted salad? Not good.
The Truth About Temperatures
When it comes to buffets, every expert mentioned this maxim: "Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold."
Hot buffet foods should be kept at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, preferably at steam tables, which heat more evenly than Sterno burners. Cold foods should be kept at 40 degrees in refrigerated units or ice baths, according to experts.
"When we do inspections at buffets, we're strongly concerned with temperature control," Ong says. That's because proper temperatures help prevent harmful organisms from multiplying to disease-causing levels.
The dangers include salmonella, E. coli, listeria, and noroviruses, which have sparked outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness on cruise ships in recent years. Clostridium perfringens, nicknamed "the cafeteria germ," can also thrive in large portions left for long periods at lukewarm or room temperatures. For example, the bacteria can grow in cooked ground beef that may be used in tacos or casseroles.
When foods go "out of temperature," they enter what experts call a "danger zone" from 40 to 140 degrees. As temperatures move toward about 100 degrees -- roughly a normal reading for the human body -- bacteria multiply fastest, says Craig Hedberg, PhD, an epidemiologist who has investigated food-borne illnesses. He is an associate professor in the Environmental and Occupational Health Department at the University of Minnesota.
"The longer a food item is in the danger zone, the greater the risk of bacterial growth that could lead to disease," he says.
On unannounced inspections, Chase has caught buffet restaurants setting steam tables under 140 degrees. "As soon as we walk in, they turn them up quickly. But it doesn't make any difference because the food's not going to heat up in two minutes before we walk over to the buffet to take the temperature."