Hot foods to be served at a buffet should be kept at an internal temperature of 140 °F (63°C) or warmer. In such instance, the use of a food thermometer to steadily check the temperature of the food is very necessary. You are normally expected to serve or keep food hot in chafing dishes, slow cookers, and warming trays.
However, note that some warmers only hold food at 110 °F to 120 °F, so check the product label to make sure your warmer has the capability to hold foods at 140 °F or warmer. This is the temperature that is required to keep bacteria at bay.
Just like it was stated above, according to food guidelines, foods should ideally be kept at or above 63°C whilst out for service. If there is no hot holding equipment and/or the food drops below 63°C, it must be eaten or taken out for service within two hours. If food is purchased frozen, you have to make sure it is prepared and cooked in accordance with any instructions on the packaging.
If food is delivered cold and is intended to be served hot, you have to make sure that any manufacturer’s cooking instructions are followed. Food must be properly cooked/re-heated to a minimum core temperature of 75°C for 30 seconds. Food must only be re-heated once. If food is being cooked and re-heated then the use of a food probe thermometer is advised to allow checks to be made. The probe must be properly cleaned and disinfected before use.
General Rule for Buffet Food Safety
Organizing a buffet poses certain food safety risks that you must manage to protect your customers from food poisoning.
Buffets are known to include displays of hot and cold food, as well as food held at room temperature; many of these foods (e.g. seafood, meat, dairy products) can inhibit dangerous bacteria which can multiply rapidly in the right conditions, and customers themselves can often contaminate food without realizing it. To avoid a serious food safety incident from happening in your buffet-style venture, below are few tips to consider:
- Keep food out of the Temperature Danger Zone
Have it in mind that all potentially hazardous foods (also called high-risk foods) are expected to be displayed in hot or cold displays outside of the Temperature Danger Zone (4°C to 60°C*), which simply means the temperature range in which bacteria and other dangerous microorganisms can multiply rapidly.
For food items being held in the hot food zone, do not forget to stir items frequently to evenly distribute heat throughout the food, check food temperatures often, use a cleaned and sanitized thermometer to check food temperatures, and always calibrate your thermometer before use.
If you’re using a probe thermometer to check hot food temperatures, insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the food (avoid bones and do not touch the thermometer to the sides or bottom of the display dish).
Also use labels or another system to state how long food has been on display for, and when the last temperature check was performed; you can use any system that works for you, as long as it properly tells this information to all food service employees on duty, who can take corrective action if required.
During a buffet, if you must hold food at room temperature, ensure to get rid of any high-risk foods that have been on display for two hours or longer. To reduce food waste, you will want to prepare and display food in small batches that can be used within a two-hour timeframe.
- Monitor and Supervise Self-service Areas
One common and notable thing about buffet food safety is that the customers themselves often pose the greatest risk — to themselves and to other customers. That is why it is very important for Food Handlers to be trained in proper food handling practices; many have completed a food handling course and obtained a food handling certificate from a recognized provider.
Note that food Handlers are always expected to take precautions to prevent food contamination, whereas the public who have not undergone food safety training, may not. That means that any man, woman or child eating at the buffet could contaminate their own food and everybody else’s.
Nonetheless, to save the customer from him or herself, it is necessary that you supervise self-service areas. It is advisable you allocate at least one staff member per shift (or per station) to supervise the buffet and train them on the steps to take if they notice a possible contamination incident.
It can be daunting to maintain careful supervision without making customers feel uncomfortable, so you will want to allocate these tasks to staff members with good customer service skills, who won’t be too intrusive. You wouldn’t want customers to feel like they are under a microscope, but leveraging a signage can help to remind customers that their actions can impact the health and safety of others.
- Position at least one Serving Utensil for every Food Item
Note that using the same serving utensil for different foods, or touching food items with your bare hands, can cause cross-contamination. Cross-contamination simply means the accidental transfer of contaminants to food, making it unsafe to eat. Cross-contamination is controlled by trained Food Handlers like chefs, cooks and servers, who follow food safety protocols.
Note that having one or more serving utensils for each food item discourages customers from using the same serving utensil (or their fingers) to pick up different food items.
You need to diligently stay on top of this; have cleaned and sanitized utensils ready to replace those in need of cleaning so that the food item is never left without a serving utensil. Even a short delay could result in a customer “winging it” with whatever is close at hand. Remove any food or utensils that you notice have become contaminated from service and replenish with fresh items.
- Any Suspicion, throw it out
Have it in mind that foods that are inhibited with harmful bacteria and other pathogenic microorganisms (e.g. viruses, parasites) may not look, taste or smell any different from foods that are safe to eat. Trace amounts of food allergens are also tasteless and impossible to detect with the senses.
Now, to the question, how do you know for sure if food is safe to eat or if it needs to be thrown out? The realest answer is you don’t always know. You can’t always tell if food is safe or not, which is why it is crucial to understand the fundamentals of safe food handling and to follow food safety best practices.
It is an ideal practice to throw away any high-risk foods from a buffet or self-service facility that hasn’t been used within two hours; this is because bacteria and other pathogens will have had time to multiply to unsafe numbers. Don’t forget that that hot holding equipment are not designed to reheat food or to bring it to temperatures above 60°C, which is necessary to destroy harmful bacteria.
- Always Consider Food Safety
Although there are many potential sources of contamination in a buffet, there are several practical steps that can be taken to protect food and utensils from contamination. These steps include:
- Cover all food items with lids (whenever possible).
- Use sneeze guards over buffet areas to prevent bacteria from sneezing or saliva from reaching the food.
- Ensure that the handles of serving utensils don’t touch food items, as bacteria from customers’ hands can get into it.
- Keep raw food well away from pre-prepared or cooked foods.
- Never add fresh food to old batches of food.
- Never reuse food that has been sitting on a buffet table (even if it is only been there a short time).
- Keep cutlery and napkins under cover or well away from the food.
- Clean and sanitize food trays frequently.
In summary, the best way to manage food safety hazards in a buffet is by training your food service employees to understand the signs and implications of bad food handling. When food handlers understand why food safety is important, your customers (and your business) will benefit.