(This article by Sydney Ross Singer was originally posted on his blog April 21, 2015, and is reposted with his permission.) Disease prevention specialists warn against shaking hands as a form of greeting since this is a common way people spread disease. Eating at a buffet exposes people to the hands of everyone who came to the restaurant and touched the common serving utensils. It’s like shaking everyone’s hands in the restaurant. Diarrhea, anyone? Or perhaps the flu? buffet-server-406Buffets are popular for being self-serve and all you can eat. You can even rummage through each serving platter to select your favorite parts. Unfortunately, the spoon or tong you are using to help yourself is the same spoon hundreds of other hungry people used to get their food. Some of these people just went to the bathroom in the restaurant and did not wash their hands. Others just coughed or sneezed into their hand or blew their noses because of a cold or flu. And few, if any, washed their hands before grabbing the same serving spoon you just grabbed. Then you use your hands to eat, introducing buffet-borne bacteria and viruses into your body. It’s enough to make you sick, and it often does. Food safety officials are concerned about contamination of the buffet food, which is why there is a sneeze guard covering the buffet items. Regulations require that utensils used in food preparation be changed every 4 hours. And if the serving utensils fall into the food, especially the handle, the entire platter of food must be discarded. But regulations do not address the serving spoons and tongs as vectors of disease from public handling. Of course, there are other things we all touch that can spread disease, such as door and faucet handles, especially in public bathrooms. But when you have these exposures in a place where you eat, there is an increased risk of disease transmission. What is the public to do? Here are some suggestions for making buffets less biohazardous: 1. The safest option is for the restaurant to have a server dishing out the food so only that server touches the serving utensils. The problem is this would be like a school cafeteria and turn people off, especially those who want unrestricted self-service. 2. The restaurant can offer disposable napkins at the buffet line for each customer to use to handle the serving utensils. The problem is the napkins can be accidentally dropped into the food, which would require the entire platter to be discarded. And there is the added waste of used napkins. 3. There could be a hand sanitizer available for use at the buffer line. But not everyone would use the sanitizer, so the utensils would still be a source of contamination. 4. Patrons can use their own hand sanitizers before eating. This is a good idea no matter what. Of course, you could also choose to avoid buffets. But for those who enjoy the smorgasbord experience, a little common sense and hand hygiene can help you avoid communicable diseases.

  • KitzW

    I choose to let my immune system handle it. Unless you are on chemotherapy, there is no reason to go over the top. Simply washing up in the restroom should handle most germs. Many germs cannot survive stomach acid, so as long as you don’t touch your eyes or nose (a good practice any time), you don’t run a high risk.

    • sydsinger

      Washing in the restroom will only expose you to more germs. Better to use personal hand sanitizer.

      • Gary

        Sounds like you need a lesson in proper hand washing.

        • sydsinger

          Gary, when I was in medical school we did a little experiment. Students washed their hands with soap, as thoroughly as they could, and then touched their fingers to a Petri dish. Lots of bacteria still there. Public restrooms are not the place to visit before eating.

          • Gary

            Good for you. Now go read some peer reviewed studies on hand washing techniques and get back to me.

  • MN Born

    Doom & Gloom!

  • J T

    I gather up all the food i’m going to eat for the whole meal, leave it at my table, and then go wash my hands. Oh, and I only eat at a buffet if I can arrive there within 30 minutes of it starting up.

  • Dave Walpuck

    Regulations do address the fact that there should be a staff member assigned to over see the buffet or self service bar. They should be trained to recognize obvious potential for contamination and address it.

  • Kitsy Hahn

    My cronies and I sometimes head to the Curry House for the delicious Indian buffet they offer twice a week. They open their restaurant on Tuesdays at 5 PM, and we’re usually the first ones in the door. Gotta load up ASAP…yes, for the very reasons as stated in this article. I always tote my bottle of water mixed with a couple of teaspoons of ACV — have been doing this for many years whenever I eat out, thanks to the advice of Dr. Jarvis in his book Folk Medicine.. Hey, it can’t hurt, and so far so good.

    In his book, he tells about a married couple who attended a neighborhood BarBQ. The wife was the only one in the group who did not become sick. Reason was, she’d brought her APC/water concoction along with her, whereas her husband did not. He was indeed one of those affected by the weenies, burgers, or whatever it was that caused the grief.


    • Gary

      Nice spam! Yummy…