Experts provide a plan to maximize your chances of eating safely at buffets.
When it comes to buffets, diners have their choice these days: mom-and-pop ethnic eateries, national chain buffets, and splashy Las Vegas casino spreads complete with seafood bars and sumptuous desserts.
With all-you-can-eat prices dipping as low as $7 or $8 in some cities, buffets tempt both the palate and the wallet. In 2005, Americans spent more than $1.5 billion at the nation's 5,630 cafeteria and buffet-style restaurants, according to Technomic, a restaurant research firm in Chicago.
But how safe are these serve-it-yourself restaurants?
As long as buffet operators take proper precautions, they're generally safe, experts say. Occasional outbreaks at buffets have made headlines. But though the CDC collects information on food-borne illnesses at restaurants, it doesn't track the type of establishment involved. So there's no hard evidence that compares the risk at buffets to other types of eateries.
Buffets do present a couple of special challenges.
First, foods rest in steam tables, ice baths, or salad bars. If improperly tended, these buffet stations can allow disease causing bacteria and viruses to flourish.
Second, customers can come into contact with food: the man who sneezes into his palm and then handles the serving tongs, the woman who grabs a few strawberries with her bare hand, the child who pokes a slobbery finger into the tuna salad.
"If food is not handled properly; if people cross-contaminate food; if you have little kids touching the salad prior to service; the likelihood of food-borne illness is much higher," says Timothy Ong, a San Francisco Public Health Department senior inspector who has checked hundreds of buffet restaurants in his 24-year career.
WebMD quizzed Ong and other restaurant inspectors and food scientists about ways to maximize your chances of eating safely at buffets. Does the Place Look and Smell Good?
Much of food safety happens in the kitchen -- out of your line of vision. But you can still get a sense of a restaurant's attention to hygiene.
"Look at the overall cleanliness of the establishment. While that's not a definitive clue, it's an indicator that things are being done properly," says Robert Gravani, MS, PhD, a Cornell University food science professor. Are buffet areas, floors, tabletops, and bathrooms clean? Do employees look neat? Do they wear gloves while handling food? Do they wipe away spills? Is the restaurant free of unpleasant odors?
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.