Buffets – where you serve yourself – have some unique food safety aspects and Red Flags. But first, here are a couple of reminders about buffet etiquette.
Respect the sneeze guard. There’s a reason that layer of glass (or plastic) is there; it protects your food against other people’s sneezing, coughing and breathing on it. Germs live in our mouths all the time, even when we’re healthy; one of the fastest ways to transfer them is to spread them on the food by aerial assault (sneezing, coughing, etc.). Respect the sneeze guard and make your lunch with your hands, keeping your eyes and head on the other side of the glass. Teach your children to do this as well; it’s so easy for a child to poke his/her head under the barrier to look at the vegetables (and say, “Eeewww!” if it's my kid).
Get a clean plate for each trip to the buffet. In some areas this is a health department regulation, and you’ll see signs posted. We all know it’s possible to overload your plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Let’s say Jane Smith, who feels really hungry, takes her used plate back to the buffet for seconds. She refills the plate and then thinks, “Oh this is too much food!” – so she puts some of the food back into the serving bowls. What is she doing? She has already eaten from that plate. Now she’s transferring germs and partially eaten food into your upcoming meal! When you go to the buffet, you may unwittingly consume her saliva-laden germs. So get a clean plate, and hope everyone else will too. (To find out more about how we get food borne illness, click here.)
In addition to the Full Service restaurant Red Flags (to review them, click here), here are the buffet Red Flags:
Do you notice someone who just finished eating a plate of food using the same plate to go through the line again? That’s a Red Flag #5. We discussed this above. If the person is a member of your family (or party), remind him/her to get a new plate each time through; if it’s a stranger, point it out to a buffet employee or manager. Don’t yell at the restaurant, however; it’s not the manager’s fault that not everyone reads the signs (or this web site).
Do you notice that hot foods are not hot or cold foods are not cold? It’s a Red Flag #4 or #8. If the buffet is very busy, the food may have just come out of the kitchen; while it may not look very hot or completely chilled yet, it probably is. That’s a #4. However, if you help yourself to soup that seems to be the same temperature as the room, that’s a Red Flag #8. Chances are that there’s a problem with the equipment and the staff may not realize it, so feel free to point it out. They will either reheat the soup (or other hot item) or throw it away, depending on how long it sat there. Point it out to the manager or employees right away, and watch their reaction.
Do you notice someone ducking under the sneeze guard? That’s a Red Flag #4. Again, if it’s a member of your party, ask him/her to stop. If it’s not, you might want to point it out to an employee.