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How Gross Is It to Eat Buffet Food?

Well, an infectious diseases specialist called them "cesspools for bacteria."
Steve Prezant

The Scenario
It’s an early Sunday afternoon following yet another night of questionable alcoholic decisions. Your “friend” rolls over in his bed and notices the young woman that he chatted up at the bar the night before is still asleep. Your friend's group chat is abuzz with plans for the day and the consensus for a hangover cure is to hit an all-you-can-eat buffet brunch spot across town that includes a fondue chocolate fountain.


Your friend—a known germaphobe—jerks up in bed so violently after reading the squad’s plans that he nearly wakes his lady visitor. A buffet? Are the workers wearing gloves as they are swapping food out? How long has the food been sitting out? Is someone watching the children that are double dipping marshmallows—and perhaps their grubby little appendages—into that chocolate fondue fountain? This sounds like a gastrointestinal mishap waiting to happen.

The Facts
An all-you-can-eat buffet, where you can sit for hours and eat for one low price, is the American dream. But at what cost? Apparently, 128,000 people are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year from food poisoning. Eating at buffets grosses your friend out royally because it exposes people to the germs of possibly everyone who enters the restaurant in some way or another. We’re talking about possibly coming into contact with folks who don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom, people who may be coughing and sneezing or, of course, those snot-ridden children who insist on serving themselves.

Not only do you have to worry about how germy people are, but the food itself after a while can be at risk. Buffet restaurants are infamous for leaving food out for extended periods of time (even though they adhere to food safety standards about temperatures). According to federal food safety guidelines, hot food has to stay above 140 degrees fahrenheit and cold food has to stay below 40 degrees fahrenheit. Most places adhere to these guidelines or they wouldn't pass inspection, but still—if there's a slip up, you could possibly end up with explosive diarrhea due to bacteria that is now potentially growing on the lukewarm scrambled eggs people are picking over.


What’s Actually Lurking In There?
According to health experts, the possibilities are endless—not always dangerous, but "endless" doesn't sound fun to your friend.

“You can get just about anything that can be transmitted by oral secretions,” says Allison Agwu, professor of pediatric and adult infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “The major bacteria players when it comes to unsanitary food buffet stations can be E. coli, salmonella or more common in deli meats, listeria. As far as viruses go, norovirus is the main one that we think about because it’s known to take out a whole cruise ship of people when they are eating from buffets regularly." She adds that Adenovirus—a common cause of respiratory illnesses—is definitely possible when it comes to food service operations as well.

What Will Probably Happen
Your friend is young, he doesn't have a compromised immune system, and the food looks hot. So what'll probably happen is he'll leave satiated and hungover. Even if he does encounter something unsavory—such as one of the bacteria or viruses Agwu listed above—he's not likely to experience anything more than diarrhea, vomiting, cramping and a possible fever even if he does get sick. Symptoms of these gastrointestinal issues can start within a couple hours after eating and last for a few hours or up to a couple days.

But according to Agwu, there are people who are more at risk. “Particular people such as pregnant women, babies, and people whose immune systems are not normal can possibly get these viruses and bacteria from buffets and be violently ill,” she says. “Their immune systems can be weak enough and they are susceptible to die from a foodborne illness….Even if you are not at risk, but had a foodborne illness, it is not fun and may even feel like you are going to die in those next twelve hours or so.”

What To Tell Your Friend
While this sounds dramatic, eating at a buffet is like unprotected sex—a bodily gamble. But assure him that going to a place that adheres to standards is like wearing a condom. Sure, you can’t predict the behaviors of other brunch patrons that are occupying the space with you and it’s possible that the restaurant staff is not checking the warmth of the food as often as they should. So if you and Nameless Shiraz Bae do accept the group chat invitation to partake in bottomless brunch, make sure to do your own little personal inspection as far as the food and the surroundings.

“Buffets, when they are done right, are great,” Agwu adds. “Things need to be kept at the right temperature, staff needs to be washing hands frequently, no one should be licking their fingers and going towards food and community utensils. But, the problem is this never happens. Buffets can be a cesspool for bacteria and viruses." So maybe you hold off from telling your friend that the infectious diseases doctor says she doesn't eat at buffets.

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