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The Truth About Temperatures continued...

Ong also sees operators turning down the heat, for example, to 125 degrees. "They're trying to keep the food palatable," he says. "They don't want the beef stew or chicken casserole to dry out."

Of course, no customer shows up with a food thermometer in her purse. So Ong offers this strategy: at steam tables, stir food and scoop from the bottom, where temperatures are hottest. "The casserole that's at the bottom of the dish, if you stir it up and turn it over a little bit, you could probably get it up to 155 degrees," he says. "When I go to a buffet, I just don't scoop my mashed potatoes from the top. I tend to stir it around a little bit."

If bowls of cold food are held in ice, they shouldn't rest on top, but be set deep, Chase adds. "You want the ice to surround the bowl and come up to the sides of the bowl. If you have an entire bowl of tuna fish, you wouldn't want the ice just on the bottom because then it would only keep the bottom of the product cold."

Ong says food temperatures are less of a concern during busy times, for instance, from the 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. rush period, when food turns over rapidly. While people can still eat safely during slower periods, such as 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., they should watch how carefully the restaurant is replenishing and maintaining the food. Says Ong, "I think it's very dangerous for people to eat later in the day at a buffet if temperature control and food handling is not paramount in the establishment."

The Public Nuisance

Short of hiring Miss Manners to scold the etiquette-challenged, what can restaurants do about customers who touch food or cough and sneeze on it?

For starters, buffets should have sneeze guards to shield food, experts say. Occasionally, someone can pass strep throatstrep throat by sneezing onto food, Hedberg says.

But, he adds, "I worry more about what's on people's hands." Noroviruses, which can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrheadiarrhea, can be passed when customers touch food, he says. So can E. coli and other bacteria.

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