Experts provide a plan to maximize your chances of eating safely at buffets.
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.
Make sure that the buffets you patronize supply serving spoons and long-handled tongs to discourage customers from touching food.
And still, it happens. Chase once saw a customer try to shake Parmesan cheese out of a container, only to find it had hardened. So the woman simply stirred the cheese up with her finger. "Luckily, that's a dry food and it's not all that potentially hazardous. But we had [the restaurant] change it," Chase says.
If you see patrons touching food, sneezing on it, or otherwise mishandling it, ask employees to replace it, Chase says. "As customers, we need to be more forthcoming with our requests."
Hedberg advises all customers to wash their hands before eating at a buffet to cut down on the spread of germs. And if you spot restaurant employees in the restroom, check whether they're washing their hands thoroughly.
Watch What You Eat
Every year, about 76 million cases of food-borne disease occur in the U.S., according to the CDC. While the vast majority of people have a day or two of vomiting, cramps, or diarrhea, food-borne illnesses cause roughly 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths annually.
Some groups -- the elderly, young children, and the immune-compromised -- tend to become sicker, according the CDC. For them, it's especially crucial to choose restaurants with care and avoid riskier foods.
You might want to pass up foods the CDC lists as more likely to cause illness, including raw and undercooked meat, poultry, or shellfish; raw or runny eggs (which can be in Hollandaise sauce or restaurant-made Caesar dressing); alfalfa sprouts; and unpasteurized juices.
Some experts told WebMD they specifically avoid raw oysters, which can be contaminated with seawater pathogens.
In general, foods with high acidity -- vinaigrette dressings, even salads with mayonnaise -- are usually more resistant to bacterial growth than low-acid foods, as long as they aren't prepared improperly or kept at wrong temperatures, Gravani says.
Check It Out Online
Hedberg doesn't believe you need to check out a buffet's restaurant inspection report before going. "I think we have to have a little bit of confidence in the system," he says.
But if there's any question about safety, call your local health department or search online for inspection results.