6 Numbers to Keep Your Buffet Safe

Posted on February 27, 2014
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To me, buffets are the American dream—a Homestead Act where you’re free to roam about the various chafing dishes to claim as much food as you’d like.

However, the fun ends where foodborne illness begins. Customers have to trust that the buffet is taking all the necessary precautions to prevent bacteria growth, thus avoiding food poisoning altogether.

“The consumer is at the mercy of the restaurant,” says Marisa Bunning, assistant professor for extension and food safety at Colorado State University. “We have to hope retail food establishments are following the [health] code.”

While fresh produce like fruits may be more susceptible to bacteria, Bunning emphasized that no one food is less vulnerable to spoilage. “Potential hazardous foods are such a big category. It’s not specific to one food,” she said.

That means any food at any given time could be the culprit of a food poisoning case.  And for restaurants, the trouble might not end with an upset customer. According to the legal information website Findlaw, foodborne illnesses fall under a “product liability” legal theory, making them similar to injuries brought on by defective products.

However, keeping happy customers and staying out of legal trouble is as easy as observing the time and how hot and cold your buffet is. Here are some numbers to give you an idea of foodborne illness and how to keep bacteria at bay.

48,000,000 Cases of Foodborne Illness

48,000,000. That’s a great number for a paycheck, but a not so great number considering that’s how many cases of foodborne illness occur every year, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

128,000 Hospitalizations

Of the 48,000,000 cases of food poisoning last year, 128,000 of those were serious enough to require hospitalization. That’s one hefty bill for a restaurant to foot.

3,000 Deaths

In 2012, 3,000 people died because they or the restaurant they dined at allowed food to sit out at the wrong temperature for too long. While only 1 in 16,000 cases of food poisoning results in death, it is the restaurant’s responsibility to prevent any possibility whatsoever.

20 minutes

20 minutes—that’s all it takes for bacteria to double at room temperature.

“Bacteria reproduce fairly quickly,” said Bunning. “The longer something sits, the stronger dose of bacteria customers are exposed to.”

2 hours

Any food that’s been left at room temperature for more than two hours is donezo. At this point, the dish has spoiled enough that it’s no longer safe to eat. For the sake of you and your customers, throw out the dish and start fresh.

40° to 140°

To keep buffet bacteria growth at a minimum, all food should be kept below 40° or above 140°. The range between these two temperatures—referred to as “The Danger Zone”—is like a comfy paradise where bacteria grows rampant.

Bunning emphasized that while bacteria growth can’t be stopped while food is sitting out, keeping dishes out of “The Danger Zone” will certainly curb it.

“Colder and warmer temperatures can be an effective way to slow microorganism growth,” she said.

When managing a buffet, remember that customers aren’t food experts. They know what their tastes are, and they don’t want to have any issues satisfying their cravings.

“You can’t tell by looking if a food is safe. Customers aren’t trained in that way,” said Bunning.

photo credit: cycle60 via photopin cc

John Garcia John Garcia (51 Posts)

Amateur cook, expert eater. Originally from Granby, Colorado, I'm a mountain boy who enjoys the simple things in life...like cheeseburgers and pet cats. I'm also a blogger for Food Service Warehouse who enjoys writing about food just as much as eating it.

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