Buffets Are Even More Gross Than You Think — Here's Why

Think dining at a buffet is a good deal? Think again. On the surface, the spread at a buffet may seem like a food lover's dream. Where else can you go and gorge on an endless array of dishes for a single price? With options running the gamut from crab legs to chicken chow mein to an omelette station, dining at a buffet is certainly tempting. What's not tempting is the reality of what's really going on. 

When you eat at a buffet, you do so at your own risk. There is a gross side to buffet dining and it comes in more forms than just gluttony. From the serving utensils you're using to the food itself, there are a number of disgusting things that happen daily at a buffet that you probably never even considered. So before you grab a fork and dig into your meal, here are the gross things you need to know about eating at a buffet. Sorry in advance.

Food sits out for hours

When you first enter the buffet line all you're probably thinking about is where to start first. Should you go with the salad or head straight for the prime rib? What you're probably not thinking about as you start piling food onto your plate is how long its been sitting out. This, however, should be the first concern.

It's not uncommon for a buffet to let food sit out for an hour or more. To avoid this problem, arrive at the buffet when they first open. This ensures that what you are eating is as fresh as the buffet has to offer (unless, of course, it's last night's leftovers). Also on that note, you should be weary of an empty buffet — unless, of course, it just opened. An empty buffet may sound like a food lover's dream, giving you access to as much food as you want without a long line to stop you, but an empty buffet could be a warning sign. More people at a buffet means they have to replace the food sitting out with fresh food more frequently. Without a steady flow of people, there's no telling how long the food has been sitting there.

There's bacteria lurking in your food 

One of the best things about buffets are the deals, but those deals don't come without a price — and I don't mean the money you handed over to the cashier. While the buffet may make it possible for you to gorge on pricey menu items like lobster, they also increase the possibility of you getting food poisoning. When food is not kept at the proper temperature, it becomes more prone to spoilage. That's why hot food items are placed under heating lamps and cold food items are left on ice. The problem is, buffets aren't always keeping food at the appropriate temperature — it's harder to do than you might think. When food has been sitting out for an extended period of time at the wrong temperature, it's more inclined to grow bacteria like salmonella and staphylococcus.

According to the USDA, food that's in the danger zone — between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit — experiences the most rapid growth of bacteria. That rapid growth can double within 20 minutes. If those heat lamps and ice trays aren't keeping food out of the danger zone, you could wind up being one of the thousands of Americans that get food poisoning in a year.

It's also lurking on that plastic serving tray

Do you ever wonder how cleans those plastic, cafeteria-style trays really are at a buffet? Probably not clean at all. A porous surface such as plastic is the ideal breeding ground for bacteria. While bacteria is everywhere when you're out in public, those plastic trays are considered to be one of the germiest.

Just how germ covered could they be? The National Sanitation Foundation conducted a study to determine the most germ riddled places in public. After swabbing 26 different sources for bacteria, researches discovered that restaurant trays were one of the worst places for bacteria, including E. coli and Salmonella — the worst place being a park sandbox. Unless each tray is properly washed and sanitized after each use, it's probably covered in bacteria you don't want to consume. Unless you bust out the swabs to determine for yourself, it may be a good idea to skip the plastic tray altogether — or bring your own anti-bacterial wipes. The repercussions are not worth the risk.

Other customers may have touched your food

The buffet employees aren't the only ones to blame for the bacteria lurking in your food — the patrons themselves are too. According to Oola, one buffet-goer watched a small nose-picking child shove their finger up the nozzle of a soft serve ice cream machine and back into their mouth. The child then repeated the process of nose to machine to mouth again without the parent, who was holding the child, even realizing what happened. Whether you've caught them or not, there's no telling how many unattended children have licked, coughed, or sneezed all over your food or even grabbed at the food itself.

While you may expect this from children, what you don't expect is what the adults are doing. Not only have adults been caught rummaging through the food with their bare hands, but not all of them even bothered to wash before they did it. According to one report, only 66 percent of Americans actually wash their hands with soap before leaving the restroom. Another 70 percent fessed up to skipping the soap altogether and simply rinsing with water — which won't help in removing fecal bacteria. It's likely the buffet you're dining at has a few of these non-handwashers lurking in the mix. After a trip to the restroom, whether they're grabbing at the tongs you're about to use or picking at the food bare-handed, odds are they're spreading nasty germs that can get you sick.

There are dirty dishes left out on purpose

Have you ever noticed the mess of dirty dishes that pile up on buffet tables? It's easy to assume those dirty dishes are stacking up because the staff either doesn't care or doesn't have the man power to keep up with the hoards of gluttonous eaters. The truth of the matter is, the buffet wants those dishes to stack up.

It sounds like a poor business model because a dirty eating area is less likely to draw in customers, but that's kind of the point. According to AOL, a survey found that if dirty dishes are left at a patron's table, they are less likely to go back for more food. For a buffet, that's a bonus. By leaving the used dishes where they are, you consume less, meaning they save money. They also design some of the furniture to be less comfortable. If you're looking to make the most out of your experience, request a table to be bussed or move to a new table altogether. You could also bring a comfy seat cushion. You may draw a few weird looks, but hey it's an all-you-can-eat buffet, best get your money's worth.

Cross-contamination happens

Don't be fooled, just because each food item is placed in a separate serving container doesn't mean cross-contamination won't happen. With various food items in close proximity, it's not beyond a patron to dribble bits of food into other containers, or swap the tongs from another dish. While that may taste unpleasant, it has the potential to make you sick if you have a food allergy. This is not something to be taken lightly. According to the International Association for Food Protection about 15 million Americans have a food allergy — the most common being milk, peanuts, soy, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, and wheat. For those with allergies, consuming even the smallest amount of food can cause an instant reaction such as a rash or stomach discomfort. In the worst case scenario, a severe life-threatening reaction such as anaphylactic shock can occur. With the self-serve style enabling everyone to have access to your food, there's no telling how often or what food has been cross-contaminated. If you do have a food allergy, it may be a good idea to skip the buffet for a restaurant that can adhere to your dietary restrictions.

It's best to skip lemon in your drink

Do you prefer a fresh citrusy wedge of lemon in your beverage? I hate to break it to you, but you may want to skip that wedge because it is most likely contaminated. According to Huffington Post, researchers discovered that some of the lemons used as a garnish in restaurant drinks were contaminated with varying bacteria that could possibly lead to illness. One such study found that half of the lemon wedges that were sampled contained human fecal matter. Another study found that out of 76 lemons sampled from 21 different restaurants, 70 percent of the lemon rinds contained microorganisms. Not exactly appetizing. Researchers believe the contamination may be from not washing the fruits properly, or from restaurant workers or other customers touching it with dirty hands — especially if it's just sitting out on a buffet table. Although your chances of getting sick may be relatively small, it's best to play it safe and ditch the fruit. Or bring your own pre-washed lemon wedges from home instead.

The salad is not fresh

It's no secret that eating at an all-you-can-eat buffet encourages gluttony. While you're stuffing your face with a plethora of unhealthy dishes, you may be tempted to feel a little better about yourself by making a trip to the salad bar. Unfortunately, that may not be the best idea. While you may think you're eating fresh greens and salad fixings, that's not always the case.

According to The New York Times, it's not uncommon for the salad bar to contain food that was previously out, placed back into the refrigerator overnight, and then put back out the next day. There's also no telling how long it was out before it was placed back into the refrigerator. To make matters worse, employees freshening up the salad bar may simply refill the containers without washing them before doing so. Dirty containers and day-old salad fixings? No thanks, I'll pass on the healthy stuff.

Those tongs grabbing your food are nasty

The very thing meant to limit bacteria from making its way into your food could possibly be the biggest germ culprit of them all. According to Food Safety News, it's a requirement that any serving utensil in food preparation be replaced every four hours and if a serving utensil falls into the food the entire dish has to be discarded. Unfortunately, these regulations don't take into consideration public handling. Unless employees are watching each food container like a hawk, it's guaranteed that at a time or two one of those spoons will slip into the food and a customer will carelessly rescue it only to scoop a helping of contaminated food onto their plate. So why is a pair of tongs falling into a dish such a big deal? 

That brings us back to the biggest problem — the people themselves. There's no telling where someone else's hands have been before they touched a serving utensil — much less how many people have touched it. Wherever they've been, whatever they've done, their hands are touching the same serving utensils that you are touching — and that's touching your food. While it's probably unlikely that you'll bring your own serving utensils to a buffet, it may be a good idea to avoid skin contact and use a napkin or glove.

The people preparing your food may be sick

Unless you have paid sick days at your place of work, odds are you've shown up when you were under the weather. This is not at all uncommon, even when you work in the food service industry — like at a buffet. According to NPR, a survey found that 51 percent of food workers go to work when sick and 45 percent said they work because they can't afford to take a day off. With low wages and no paid sick leave being rather common in the food industry, it's likely that buffet employees work when they're sick. The trouble with this is that if a sick worker comes into contact with your food, you're likely to catch whatever they have. Unless you know for a fact that the buffet you're eating at either has sick day leave or strict policies on working when sick, there's no telling if you're about to be served up a little something extra from the kitchen.

Rodent and roach infestations do happen

Would you eat at a buffet if you knew it was infested with rodents and roaches? Probably not. Yet people have and they probably didn't even know it until a food inspector shut it down. Every now and then, a buffet makes the headlines for unsanitary practices that cause mandatory shutdown — not really surprising when you think about it, given all the food that sits out all day. One such incident happened at a Golden Corral. According to ABC News, a Golden Corral in Florida was closed for 24 hours after a health inspector found over 100 rodent droppings at several food stations throughout the dinning area along with other health violations. Another buffet was guilty of live and dead roaches present in the restaurant. That doesn't exactly sound appealing. The scary part is the health inspector may not always be lurking around when an infestation violation strikes. While your favorite buffet may be critter-free, there's really no telling what violations are occurring without you knowing.