Everyone enjoys a good buffet; unfortunately, buffets are also one of the most unclean places you could possibly eat in, thanks in no small part to YOU.
Yes, you and your fellow diners might be causing the health rating of buffets nationwide to plummet, all because of a common practice so many people do: reusing plates.
What is the Buffet Clean Plate Law?
To be clear, there is no such thing as a ‘clean plate law’; that being said, there are food and safety guidelines that discourage reusing plates, especially in buffets, and even in Teppanyakis, where the risk of cross-contamination is much higher.
In the Department of Health’s Food Safety Principles and Guidelines, they state:
“Always use a clean plate to serve and eat food.”
And while there’s no hard law that says you have to, it is an integral part of proper buffet etiquette to always use a fresh, clean plate whenever you’re going for seconds (or thirds, or fourths, ad nauseam). Of course, because there is no such thing as a ‘buffet clean plate law’, some people do end up using dirty plates when going back to the buffet line. Unfortunately, restaurants can only go so far as to put up signs reminding everyone not to do it, but other than, enforcement of this ‘guideline’ isn’t exactly practiced.
Why Do We Need It?
It’s simple: using a clean plate greatly reduces the risk of cross-contamination. Cross-contamination is when germs from other sources, i.e. your hands, dirty utensils, and yes, dirty plates, comes into contact with fresh food. Because the food in buffet lines are usually kept warm, it makes it the perfect breeding grounds for nasty diseases like Salmonella, E.Coli, Toxoplasma gondii, or the Norovirus.
Disturbingly, a lot of foodborne illnesses actually come from human feces: Hepatitis A and the Norovirus are the most commonly found pathogens in foods contaminated by poop. And unfortunately, we Americans aren’t as clean as we think: only 66% of people in the country do their due diligence of washing their hands after pooping. This means that 36% of people around the country, or a staggering 118 million people are walking around, using utensils, and eating at the same buffets as you who may have fecal matter on their hands. Yikes!
How to Prevent Cross Contamination
Keeping your food safe from contamination doesn’t need a clean room; you just need to follow certain steps. Of course, if you’re at a buffet, there’s really not much you can do if the food was contaminated before you touched it, but most of the time, these places are safe to eat at.
On the diner’s part, always make sure that your hands are clean. Yes, hand washing is still one of the best ways to prevent illnesses. Make sure to use anti-bacterial soap and to get the suds into all the nooks and crannies of your fingers. Wash your hands for a minimum of 20 seconds to get maximum protection from germs.
Next, always use a clean plate at a buffet. Yes, it might seem a bit wasteful, and with everyone up and arms about conserving water and saving the environment, this might seem counter-intuitive. However, using a clean plate at the buffet won’t just help you, it will also help your fellow diners avoid foodborne illnesses via cross-contamination.
When you’re preparing food at home, here are some safety tips to follow:
Always Buy Quality Ingredients
Always buy your raw meat and veggies, particularly poultry and seafood, from reputable sources. When buying meat, make sure that the packaging is intact, with no holes or tears, and that the meat was kept either very chilled or frozen.
Segregate your purchases; separate fresh meat from frozen meat, and keep all raw ingredients separate from other types of produce and ready-to-eat products. As much as possible, keep your meat and seafood purchases in separate tote bags to further reduce the risk of cross-contamination.
It might be tempting to buy pre-packaged frozen meat, but these are usually some of the older products that the supermarket hasn’t been able to sell. As much as possible, stick to fresh meat and seafood, and learn how to spot bad meat and fish. Remember: if it looks, feels, or smells bad, it probably is bad.
As for veggies, look for bright, vibrant colors on the surface of the vegetable, and don’t be afraid to give them a light squeeze. Any off-coloring or mushiness is a bad sign.
Store All Food Products Properly
As much as possible, get your groceries into the freezer or refrigerator within two hours of purchasing them. This minimizes the risk of contamination and keeps your food fresher for longer. Once your frozen foods start thawing, juices are going to start to accumulate, which might contaminate other foods. Always double-check the packaging to make sure there are no tears and holes for the juices to seep out from.
If there is a leak, separate that product from the rest of your groceries and clean up the liquid as soon as you can. If your tote bag or disposable cloth bags are dirty, wash them with warm, soapy water and dry them out as much as possible. Replace any broken packaging and store your products in clean containers. Keep them refrigerated or frozen (depending on the product).
Practice Hygiene-First in the Kitchen
Like we mentioned before, it only takes 20 seconds of handwashing before you’re pretty much good to go to handle food directly. As much as possible, use anti-bacterial soap with warm, soapy water. Wash your hands before handling foods (especially raw meat) and after.
Always use separate utensils for raw meat and seafood, and don’t let them touch other products. Thoroughly wash and clean utensils that were used in handling raw meat and fish, as well as any surfaces that they have come in contact with. Use separate utensils as well for preparing food, tasting food, and eating food. Use separate cutting boards for preparing meat, vegetables, fruits, and bread. Do NOT mix up those cutting boards, and replace them as soon as they start showing wear and tear.
Place all unused produce back into the refrigerator as soon as possible. Replace their original containers with clean storage containers. Try not to bring something out of the freezer or refrigerator if you won’t be using it immediately.