Buffets.  The word alone causes a smile to appear on my face.  I can still recall with vivid clarity the new buffet restaurant that opened in my hometown when I was a young boy, and the bizarre obsession to experience it that overtook me and my friends.  I pled with my parents–tears may have been involved–for just the opportunity to dine there.  Finally, after my incessant whining, Mom and Dad caved and took me to the magical restaurant.  The place had it all.  Piles of creamy white mashed potatoes, juicy slabs of roast beef, bottomless creamed corn, and bowl after bowl of chocolate and vanilla soft-serve ice cream that you could top with every candy and cookie piece imaginable.  It was–in a word–glorious.  Even today, I cannot travel to Las Vegas without at least one trip down a gut-busting food smorgasbord.

Of course, as any buffet connoisseur knows, there are some amazing buffets out there to be experienced, with food quality equal to or better than one can find at some of the very best restaurants.  There are also some very, VERY bad buffets, the type I imagine people are sent to as court-ordered punishment for misdeeds.  But regardless of whether you are enjoying a $60 lobster and champagne dinner buffet or a $4.99 roadside-kill version, there is at least one thing all buffets have in common: cross-contamination risk.  Cue the wah-wah sound.

I hate to knock one of my favorite childhood dining experiences, but the simple truth is that buffets can be risky.  They have been linked to countless incidents of foodborne illness.  Here are just a few examples:

•  In 2001, local Minnesota health departments noted a cluster of E. coli O157:H7 cases in Douglas and Pope County.  All of the cases required hospitalization due to the severity of their infections. After investigating, epidemiologists discovered that all of the case-patients had dined at the same Chinese buffet restaurant in Alexandria, MN.

•  In 2002, a large Salmonella outbreak occurred at a buffet restaurant in Spruce Pine, North Carolina.  Hamburger steak with gravy, fried chicken, and ham all tested positive for the presence of Salmonella Heidelberg.  Two employees were found to be infected with the same strain of Salmonella Heidelberg.  Both had eaten food that had been prepared at the restaurant so it was not clear if they were the source of the outbreak or if they were victims, like the patrons.

•  In 2003, multiple people, residing in several states, became ill with Shigella after their stay at a hotel in Westminster, Colorado. Several groups were affected, including hotel staff, a veterans’ group, a wedding group, and other hotel guests. The same strain of Shigella was detected among the culture-confirmed cases. The investigation determined that the illnesses were associated with eating from the breakfast buffet.

These are but a few cases where buffet dining resulted in an outbreak of illnesses.  So what is it about buffets that creates the perfect mechanism for spreading foodborne bacteria and viruses?  Again, it all comes back to cross-contamination.  Cross-contamination is the transfer of disease-causing microorganisms, such as bacteria and viruses, from one food to another.  This transfer can happen in a variety of ways.  For example, contaminated food may come in direct contact with other foods, or one food’s juices may drip contaminated liquid on another food.  Cross-contamination can also occur when a person with unclean hands touches a food item or utensil, thus spreading bacteria or viruses on their hands to everyone else who comes in contact with that food or utensil.

The self-serve format of buffet restaurants practically invites such cross-contamination issues.  Think of it this way.  In a good restaurant kitchen, the employees are well trained in proper food handling practices.  They all wear gloves, and replace them with a fresh pair any time they touch their face, hair, or anything unclean.  They wash their hands frequently, especially after each bathroom use or after touching anything unclean.  Their employers have very clear ill employee policies in place, and the employees follow those policies.

At a buffet-style restaurant, however, in addition to the usual food service employees, there is you.  That’s right, YOU are one of the food servers at a buffet, and so is every other man, woman, and child eating at the establishment.  Think of all the serving spoons and forks you must touch just to fill your plate with a delicious sampling of foods.  Now think about all the other people sitting around you who touched that exact same spoon or folk.  I know you and your family are diligent hand washers, but what about everyone else?  Ever found a serving utensil floating in the food dish?  Or even the handle sitting slightly askew and touching the food?  That is cross-contamination and you do not want to put that food in your mouth.

Other important dangers for buffet dining involve proper temperature maintenance.  Quite simply, hot foods need to be kept hot, and cold foods need to be kept cold.  Government food agencies recommend that hot foods be held at 140 F or warmer, while cold foods should be held at 40 F or colder.  Trouble arises when the food’s temperature rises above 40 F or below 140 F.  It is in this range that bacteria potentially present in small amounts can quickly grow and multiply, making it dangerous to consume and significantly increasing the risk of illness to consumers.  The presentation and serving style of buffets makes proper food holding temperature practices very difficult.

While there is no way to guarantee that your buffet dining experience will not result in a serious foodborne illness, there are a few things everyone can do to minimize their risk when dining at a buffet-style restaurant.

•  Before hitting the buffet line, and ideally after dishing up, everyone at the table should take a side trip to the bathroom for a thorough hand washing with lots of soap and hot water.

•  Do not eat foods that are not being kept appropriately hot or cold, and notify an employee who can remedy the situation if you note a problem.  

•  Do not eat foods that have obviously been sitting out for long periods of time.  

•  If you notice a utensil handle resting in the tray or touching the food, do not pull it out and use it.  Immediately notify an employee so that the food can be removed and replaced with a fresh batch of food and a clean serving utensil.

Remember, unlike pathogens that cause food to spoil, the potentially deadly bacteria and viruses that live on foods and food preparation surfaces cannot be smelled or tasted.  Prevention and safe food handling is the only way to decrease your risk of becoming ill from a foodborne pathogen.