Except for high-end establishments, almost all types of restaurants these days have some type of self-service customer buffet or salad bar that serves ready-to-eat food. Even El Pollo Loco and other Mexican-style restaurants allow you to choose and fill up on a variety of sauces. Asian-style all-you-can-eat restaurants are another big one and many are popping up in most major cities. Then there are, of course, the restaurants that focus entirely on buffets and salad bars.
The health and safety laws governing these displays have been developed over the years to address the uniqueness of this type of setup and some of the unique dangers or risks to consumers. Below are most of those requirements, as well as my own recommendations from years of experience inspecting restaurant buffets and salad bars:
– An obvious requirement is that all open and exposed ready-to-eat foods must be shielded to block a direct line between the customer’s mouth and the exposed foods. This shield is generally known as a sneeze guard for larger food displays and is generally made of glass or clear plastic, angled over the food just enough to block possible contamination from the customer’s mouth (saliva from sneezing, coughing, talking, etc.). The shield can also take the form of a container with a tightly attached lid, usually hinged. If there is no evidence of a shield or cap, the screen is most likely unapproved and should be avoided.
– A separate utensil with a handle is required for each food displayed for self-service. No customer may touch exposed food with their hands.
– Clean plates and other dishes should be in or next to the buffet or salad bar and customers should be reminded, or notified if necessary, that only clean dishes should be used when returning to the buffet.
– Proper temperatures must be maintained. The food is usually displayed on ice (and must actually be buried in ice), or the containers are placed in a chilled or warmer unit, or the food is under a warming lamp. Look for steam coming from the heater or steam table and even from the food itself. Don’t rely on a chafing dish for long-term (more than 2 hours) food retention. Typically you will only see rubbed dishes in a temporary buffet setting. They are large shallow metal plates with one or two canned gas flames underneath, which attempt to keep food warm. They may be good for only short periods of time, and they are not trusted or definitely not approved for a more permanent buffet setting. Heat lamps often fall into this same category. They are also not the best means of keeping holding temperatures warm for a long period of time.
– Employees must constantly monitor and maintain the buffet or salad bar. They have to do everything from replenishing it to cleaning it to checking temperatures frequently.
– No sulphites or sulfating agents. Sulfites used to be a common preservative agent, especially in fruits, maintaining a fresh appearance. Most, if not all, states prohibit any food facility from applying sulfating agents to fresh fruits and vegetables intended for raw consumption, or to any potentially dangerous food. Sulfites are still allowed in fruits and vegetables that are not sold raw, such as dried fruits and grapes used for wine.
– Absolutely no flies or other types of vermin (cockroaches, rodents). Contrary to what you may have heard, there is not an acceptable number of parasites allowed in a food establishment. Vermin are strictly illegal in all areas of the establishment. They harbor and can transmit dangerous microorganisms as well as general dirt to your food and should not be tolerated.
– There is no leakage or accumulation of sewage in the floor area, either from melting ice or the cooling or heating unit.
– Most foods should have a label that identifies the common name of the food, sauce, dressing, condiments, etc.
Knowing the requirements and potential dangers of a buffet or salad bar is just good consumer awareness and can give you the edge in preventing a serious foodborne illness.