Self-service areas like salad bars and buffets allow guests to assemble a meal by their tastes and appetite, but they also offer extra opportunities for bacteria and viruses to contaminate food. Prevent cross-contamination in self-service areas with a few special precautions.
Self-service areas should be monitored by a food worker who has been trained in keeping these areas safe. It is the food worker’s job to make sure that guests behave appropriately in self-service areas, that dishes and serving utensils are adequately stocked, and that contaminated food is discarded and replaced.
In most cases, food on a buffet line or salad bar won’t be packaged, so it’s important to keep a barrier between customers and the food. This is usually accomplished by a “sneeze guard”—also known as a “food guard” or “food shield”—installed over the self-service equipment. These guards protect food from, yes, sneezes and other incidents that could spread germs to food.
Provide a serving utensil for each food item offered in self-service areas. This practice should discourage customers from touching the food with their bare hands. It also helps protect customers with food allergies. For example, if cheese offered in a salad bar does not have a corresponding utensil, someone may use a utensil provided for another food, like the peas, to handle the cheese. If that customer then returns the utensil to its original container, the peas will have been cross-contacted by dairy allergens. Any customer with a dairy allergy who then eats the peas may suffer from an allergic reaction.
Each time customers return to a self-service area, they must use a clean dish for their food. This measure may seem wasteful or unnecessary, but it’s actually very important. Customers who add food to a dirty dish may accidentally touch the dish with the food’s serving utensil. Any germs that spread to the serving utensil will then go straight back to the food that everyone eats. It’s a good idea to post a sign in self-service areas reminding customers of this rule.
Also, because it’s so important that customers use clean dishes at self-service areas, establishments are responsible for keeping dishes and utensils at self-service areas well-stocked.
Many buffets and salad bars offer foods that require temperature control to stay safe. Temperature control requirements are not unique to self-service, but they are crucial to serving safe food. Food workers who monitor self-service areas should frequently check the temperatures of hot foods to make sure that they are at least 135°F (57°C) or hotter, and cold foods should be checked to verify that they are 41°F (5°C) or colder.
And don’t forget to clean and sanitize the thermometer between uses with different foods; this measure prevents allergens and germs from spreading from one food to another.
When to Throw Food Away
If you have reason to suspect that food in a self-service area has been contaminated, it is best practice to throw the food away and replace it with a fresh batch in a cleaned and sanitized container. It’s unfortunate to let food go to waste, but the first priority must be customers’ safety.
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