Food Bars/Buffets in Supermarkets--Is the food safe? How can you tell?

food barPerhaps you've noticed this: some sections of supermarkets are morphing into restaurants. Cold food bars offer everything customers need to make a glorious salad. Hot food bars have soups, entrées, pastas, potatoes, cooked vegetables, casseroles, and more.  Everything is there, just awaiting your tongs or spoon, to enable you to take home an entire tasty dinner.  But, you may wonder, is all this exposed food safe?  Is it held at the proper temperature so bacteria can't multiply rapidly? Is it properly protected from consumers with a cough or unclean hands?  Is it maintained by employees in a sanitary way? We asked our Shelf Life Advice Board members (all scientists) to give concerned consumers tips on safe food bar usage.


Comments and Suggestions from our Board Members


The scientists who serve the Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board did not seem to consider these buffets a public menace, though one expressed concern about cross-contamination. Here are some reactions from the others.


Food process engineer Dr. Tim Bowser: "If the store has a good reputation and is in compliance with local health and safety laws, then I would assume that its food is safe.  A quick look at the food and the premises should help the consumer assess the safety."


Food scientist Dr. Clair Hicks: "If the retail operations follow safe food guidelines and the temperature is correct, foods on store buffets should be safe to consume." 


Food scientist Dr. Karin Allen: "I don't think food bars are a bad thing."


Food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein: "I go to an Indian buffet regularly--and there are lots of people doing take-out."


However, our Board members do advise consumers to be on the lookout for signs of improper maintenance of the bar and the area around it.  These are some things consumers can either check out as they look around or ask store personnel about.


  • ŸIs the food kept at the right temperature--either hot or cold?  Is the temperature checked regularly?  How often?  (Reminder:  Bacteria multiply rapidly when food is in what scientists call the "danger zone," 40°F - 140°F.  Therefore, the food at a hot bar should be at least 140°F the items on the cold bar should be no warmer than 40°F.) Is the food regularly mixed/stirred to be sure all of the product in the tray is at the right temperature?
  • Are food containers and the area around these kept clean and neat?
  • "Are products sold frequently and then replaced with fresh stock? How often does the food in each bin get replaced?" Dr. Bowser asks.  Customers might want to ask what time hot food is put out and when the bar foods are at their freshest. Dr. Hicks points this out, "You can only leave hot food out so long before it becomes dried out and unpalatable." 
  • When fresh stock is added to prepared food (whether cold or hot, whether tuna salad or stew), the empty or nearly empty container should be removed and a fresh one inserted. Dr. Allen points out that it's a violation of the FDA food code to mix new food with the food that has been on the buffet for awhile.  (Note: this rule applies only to prepared foods not to items such as lettuce.)
  • Are the containers covered or the exposed products protected by a sneeze bar (the clear plastic or glass sheet that keeps shoppers from getting too close to the food)? Are there warming lamps above the hot foods?  Dr. Regenstein points out that some restaurants (especially the all-you-can-eat types) have food out uncovered, which is questionable procedure.
  • Watch the staff as they service the bar; watch the customers as they take food from it. If you have concerns, ask the staff about maintenance.  Dr. Allen says, "If no one will answer your questions, go to a different store for your carry-out food."


The Consumer's Role in Ensuring Food Bar Safety


Consumers should get their purchases home before they slip into the "danger zone." (Both Dr. Bowser and Dr. Regenstein mentioned this.) If the food and the family reach home at about the same time, food from the hot food bar may be warm and tasty enough to eat right from the shopping bag or after a bit of quick microwave or convection oven warm-up.  However, if hot food for dinner is purchased early in the day, it must be refrigerated and then, at dinnertime, heated to 165°F. Cold perishables from the salad bar must also be refrigerated promptly.


When grocery shopping, it's a good idea to bring along an insulated bag or "lunch box," one for cold perishable food and one for hot.


Dr. Allen mentioned one former cold food bar problem that is no longer a health risk.  Some readers may remember when sulfites were used on fresh fruits and vegetables displayed on salad bars. Sulfites kept these perishables looking fresh longer; they also caused many incidents of severe allergic reactions, mainly among asthmatics.  As a result, starting on August 8, 1986, the FDA banned restaurants and food stores from using sulfite preservatives on fresh fruits and vegetables.


A New Idea for Food Bars


Food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter (another Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board member) told me about a new product called "Mitzeez." It's intended for use at supermarkets, restaurant buffets, and farmers' markets.  As the name suggests, it resembles a mitten except that there's no special section for the thumb.  The consumer slips it over his/her dominant hand (the one that will use the tongs or serving spoon) and thereby prevents contaminating the food or other food bar customers with whatever germs may be on their hand.  At farmers' markets, it's also protective when shoppers pick up finger foods.  After one use, Mitzeez is discarded. To watch a video showing customers happily using this mitt, click here and then click on "video testimonials." Perhaps you'll be seeing Mitzeez next to the food bar in your supermarket very soon.  Dr. Cutter says food scientists may be testing this product soon to see how well it cuts down on contamination.


Comments from the Shelf Life Advice Editor


I'm a food bar advocate (though I don't recommend it for every meal you eat). Prepared food from a hot bar is a great convenience when you're short of time and still want a hot meal that tastes pretty good. Store buffets are handy for busy people, those who hate cooking, and those living alone or with one other person.  You wouldn't make a turkey for 1-2 people, but you can probably buy turkey slices in gravy from the food bar at your neighborhood supermarket.  Yes, you could find this dish frozen  or refrigerated with a use-by date 7-10 days later,  but, trust me, these choices aren't likely to be as good as the food bar offering. 


In terms of salads, I think the cold bar offers a financial advantage if you're preparing a small salad for 1 or 2 people or if you eat out very often. You don't need to buy a head or a bag of lettuce, just the amount you need for tonight's dinner. If you want olives or artichoke hearts with your salad, you don't need to buy a whole can or jar. If you live in a 1 or 2-person household, the salad bar helps you save money and cut down on food waste.  


But dining from the store buffet does have at least one disadvantage for those who are on some kind of diet.  In general, these buffets don't supply data about salt, fat, sugar, and calorie content. However, I did find nutrition facts on soups at a Jewel food bar. Perhaps if customers requested this information, more food bars will provide it on more foods. Of course, if you cook your own food, you also get no exact numbers on nutrition facts, but you know if you've put in a lot of fat, salt or sugar.


About quality: When making selections from a food bar you've never visited before, I suggest that you take a small amount of several different items. Find out what you like before you buy a lot of one item.  


About quantity: Dieters used to frozen or packaged meals may miss the quantity control. If you're trying to lose weight, you have to decide yourself what a reasonable portion is.  But the bar does give you the ability to control portion size, and, if you take smaller portions, you're also rewarded by the lower price.


About cost: Don't expect food on the store buffet to be a great bargain. Expect it to be more expensive than cooking the food yourself but probably cheaper than what the same type of food costs in most restaurants.  At the supermarket in my neighborhood, the price for "Hot Eats" is $6.49 a pound, whether the item is pasta or ribs; the cold bar items are a dollar cheaper.  Consumers can get a better deal by choosing items that have a greater inherent value.







Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences


Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


Catherine Nettles Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Department of Food Science


Clair L. Hicks, Ph.D., University of Kentucky, Dept. of Animal and Food Sciences


Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science "Video Testimonials"



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