Food Safety

How to Keep Food Safe in Self-Service Settings

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Trust20 Contributors • 10 minute read

Who doesn’t love a good buffet? While we can’t speak for everyone, we know that given the opportunity, bacteria and viruses will jump on a buffet faster than you can get back in line for seconds.

While there are countless benefits to self-service food environments, cleanliness and good sanitation aren’t always listed among them (unfortunately). When customers are responsible for serving and handling their own food, that’s more hands getting involved in the food preparation process–and more potential vectors for disease to spread.

As foodservice professionals, it’s important for us to recognize the potential hazards that come along with self-service food settings.

In this post, we’ll look closer at some common risks in self-service food settings, like buffets and cafeteria lines, and address some simple ways to mitigate those risks.

What Are the Hazards of Serving and Self-Service Food?

How Can You Prevent Contamination When Serving Food in Self-Service Areas?

What Are the Hazards of Serving and Self-Service Food?

There are lots of benefits of self-service in foodservice establishments. It allows for both convenience and cost-savings and makes it easier to feed large groups of people efficiently.

However, this kind of setup also has some inherent risks.1 Let’s explore them a bit more. 

Inconsistent Temperature Control

One of the main hazards of serving and self-service food is the lack of consistent temperature control

When food sits out for a long time, it can lead to bacteria growth, and it’s hard to track temperatures when it’s always coming and going. 

The key to preventing this is to invest in quality food heating and cooling systems, such as heat lamps, warming trays, refrigerated counters, and food carts. These systems should be regularly calibrated and monitored, and food should be checked periodically to ensure it is within safe temperature ranges. 

Unfortunately, this tends not to happen as often as it should–making it a major risk to food safety.

Customers Can Easily Contaminate the Food

The whole point of self-service settings like buffets is that customers serve themselves. While this takes some of the pressure off your waitstaff, unfortunately, it makes the likelihood of contamination so much higher.

This can happen both accidentally and on purpose. Accidental contamination might occur when customers use the same serving utensil for different dishes (problematic for people with allergies, in particular) or touch food with their bare hands. It can also happen when people sneeze, cough, or express bodily fluids in other ways near or on the food.

On the other hand, intentional contamination can occur when customers deliberately add foreign substances, such as hair, insects, or chemicals, to the food. Though this is far less common than accidental contamination, it unfortunately does still happen–especially in the case of disgruntled customers or staff. 

Food Waste

Food waste is an inevitable by-product of serving and self-service food, but it can be costly and environmentally unfriendly if not managed well. While this isn’t necessarily a risk to food safety, it’s still an inherent downside to self-service food that needs to be addressed.

Server Contamination

While servers are an essential part of the serving and self-service food process, they can also be a source of contamination if they are not properly trained and monitored.

Again, most of the time, the contamination of food by servers is accidental, just as with customers. A server might forget to wash their hands before adding food to the buffet line or touch their hair while replacing condiments. These seem like minor missteps, but improper food handling techniques–even small mistakes–can add up to big consequences. 

Adding Old Food to Fresh 

Finally, adding old food to fresh food is a common hazard in serving and self-service food, and it can lead to foodborne illnesses and other health risks. This happens mostly out of carelessness rather than deliberate neglect–a staff member (perhaps an untrained or undertrained one) simply dumps fresh food on top of the old batch, increasing the likelihood of contamination of both batches of food.

Not only does this reduce the quality of the food being served, but it also makes the likelihood of contamination and food poisoning increase. 

How Can You Prevent Contamination When Serving Food in Self-Service Areas?

Contaminated food can lead to a  whole host of problems. Not only does it open the door to compliance issues, lawsuits, and a tarnished reputation, but it’s not a great way to do business.

While self-service areas are a bit more challenging to control in terms of safety and hygiene, the good news is that there are a few simple steps you can take to keep everyone safe.

Have Designated Staff to Monitor the Cleanliness of the Self-Service Areas

If you plan on having any self-service areas in your establishment, make sure you also have dedicated staff who are responsible for the cleanliness of that area. 

These people should be keeping an eye on the food and the serving utensils, as well as the surrounding area. Staff should plan to clean these spaces at least every 20 to 30 minutes or if they are noticeably dirty.2 This can reduce the likelihood of contamination in the self-service area. 

Make Sure Diners Are Touching Food Only With Clean Serving Utensils

During the lunchtime rush hour, it can be tough to keep food restocked and serving utensils clean–but it’s imperative. Having an adequate supply of utensils will discourage your customers from grabbing food with their hands while they wait for someone to clean up the dishes.

Staff should also remind diners not to touch the self-service food with their hands. This doesn’t have to be pushy, invasive, or aggressive.

Simply putting up a few reminder signs like "Please Use Serving Utensils" can have a huge impact. 

Remember that clean utensils must be stored in clean, sanitized containers and must be replaced regularly (and not just during clean-up at the end of the day). 

Keep an Eye Out for Potential Contamination 

Vigilance is key when it comes to self-service settings. All too often, buffets and other self-serve areas are seen as places where restaurants or other facilities can cut staff. The line of thinking is that there aren’t as many servers needed to take care of the tables, so a restaurant could save money by cutting back on staff overall.

Unfortunately, buffets and other types of self-service food settings still need attentive staff who monitor the food and make sure it’s restocked appropriately–and also kept safe.

It goes beyond just restocking. Food and drink spills need to be cleaned up immediately to avoid attracting insects or bacteria. And if someone coughs or sneezes on or near the food, it must be removed from the line immediately. 

Sneeze guards and other preventative measures can help keep the area safe (more on this below), but there’s really no substitute for a set of human eyes when it comes to food safety in self-service areas. 

Make Sure Plates Are Only Used Once

One of the easiest ways to prevent contamination is to ensure that plates are only used once. This means providing enough plates for all customers and making sure they are replaced frequently.3

Staff who float around the dining area should stay on top of clearing empty plates and bowls from tables–prompting customers to grab fresh ones when they return to the line. You can also encourage customers to return their used plates to designated areas so they are not set down on a surface where bacteria can spread.

Cover or Wrap Food Well When Bringing Containers from the Kitchen to the Buffet

When you’re transporting food from the kitchen to the self-service area, make sure that containers are covered or wrapped well. This can help prevent contamination from airborne bacteria. 

When food is not being served, it should be covered or stored properly to minimize the risk of contamination in transit or before it’s put in front of customers.

Replace Entire Containers of Food

It’s also important to remember to replace the entire container of food when refreshing the stock of a certain dish–rather than mixing old with new. For some people, this can be a tough pill to swallow. Aren’t we wasting food by not combining?

Technically, yes–but the cost of wasting a small amount of uneaten food is much lower than that of a foodborne illness outbreak. Safety always needs to come first. 

Replacing the entire container, rather than mixing, prevents cross-contamination, and it also ensures that the temperature of the food is safe. 

Monitor and Record Food Temperatures

Speaking of temperature, make sure you or someone on your team monitors and records food temperatures in self-service areas to prevent contamination. This means checking the temperature of food regularly and keeping a record of the results. That way, you and your staff can quickly identify any potential issues and take action to prevent contamination.

Use Sneeze Guards and Other Barriers

One of the few advantages of operating a restaurant during the COVID-19 pandemic was that it reminded us all of the importance of being proactive in preventing the spread of disease. Barriers like sneeze guards became commonplace in restaurants and other foodservice establishments worldwide.

In fact, about 76% of polled customers say they like seeing large sneeze guards or safety shields in restaurants.4

While you’re not as likely to see guards between tables in restaurants now as you were in late 2020, they should still be a fixture in self-service settings. They can help prevent airborne bacteria and viruses from spreading onto food. Ideally, these should be placed strategically between the food and customers to avoid contamination.

In buffet stations, remember that these should be large enough to cover the entire display area and should be cleaned at regular intervals. You can also use partitions and shields to separate customers from the food items. 

Store Serving Utensils on a Clean, Sanitized Surface

Serving utensils should be stored on a clean and sanitized surface to avoid the risk of cross-contamination. You may also want to consider designating utensil holders (ideally labeled ones) near the food items to avoid mixing the utensils.

On that note, make sure the utensils you’re providing to your customers are actually suitable for use in self-service food areas. For example, those with longer handles can be used to reach deep into a container without having to touch the food. 

Train Staff to Help Customers Who Can’t Use Serving Utensils Properly

There will always be situations where customers find it difficult to use serving utensils properly, especially for young kids and the elderly. Train staff to recognize such customers and help them safely serve themselves whenever possible.

For example, a food service attendant might assist a customer by holding the plate while they serve or spoon food onto their plate. This is a common practice in self-service settings like carving stations, but it should be commonplace throughout the entire line of service. 

Put Up Signs to Educate Customers on Safe Practices

Education is key when it comes to keeping everyone safe! Start with your customers–put up signs informing them of how they can prevent contamination. These signs could include information on how to properly handle food, avoid cross-contamination, and wash their hands properly. 

Some of these signs might include language that’s somewhat obvious, but that’s not the point. Yes, you might be telling customers what they already know (most of us already know we need to wash our hands!), but frequent signage will remind them of this and keep food safety at the forefront of their minds at all times. 

And it’s something customers appreciate–about 69% of polled customers want to see posted instructions for proper customer protocols.4

So give the people what they want!

Offer Convenient To-Go Containers

Some food service establishments have reported food safety issues related to customers bringing their own to-go containers into the self-serve area. This can be problematic when the containers themselves are not clean or do not come from a sanitary environment.

A way restaurants and other foodservice establishments can get around this is by offering your own to-go containers. With these, customers can take their food away from the self-service area and eat it in another location without worrying about contamination.

These containers come in different sizes and shapes, and you can also brand them with your business’s logo to promote your brand. This option is also cost-effective since you can buy these containers in bulk.

Provide Hand Sanitizer Near the Area and Encourage its Use 

Hand Washing is always recommended for hand hygiene, but it doesn't hurt to put out some hand sanitizer, either. Place dispensers near food and beverage stations and encourage customers to use them before and after touching or handling food. 

Handle Leftover Food Wisely

First and foremost, try to avoid having any leftovers at all. Instead, only prepare enough food for the expected number of customers (if your establishment is new, this might be tough–but you should be able to hone in on some semi-accurate numbers over time).

If you have leftovers, storing them at safe temperatures is important.5 After two hours, you should dispose of any food that has been left out or not kept at a safe temperature. You can donate any excess food to local food banks or shelters to reduce waste.

Final Thoughts

One of the most important elements of food safety in self-service settings is ensuring your staff is properly trained. 

By having properly trained staff who understand the risks and know how to prevent them, you can maintain a safe and sanitary self-service environment that your customers can enjoy with peace of mind.

Look at Trust20’s entire suite of products to learn more about how to keep everyone safe, even in settings like buffets and other self-serve areas.

With Trust20, we’ll help you keep your buffets safe–one serving at a time.

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  1. UMN Extension: Service style risks and safe practices
  2. Vermont Department of Health: Self-Serve Food Safety Guidance
  3. Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., Food and Nutrition Specialist at North Dakota State University: Food Safety Basics: A Reference Guide for Foodservice Operators
  4. Chase Stanley: Self-Service & Food Safety in a Post-Pandemic World
  5. CDC: Food Safety for Buffets and Parties