“Stay Safe at Hotel Buffets: Expert Tips to Avoid Foodborne Illnesses”

Norovirus, known as the “stomach bug,” is the most likely culprit to be transferred from unclean hands to utensils and surfaces and can last on uncleaned surfaces for weeks. miljko via Getty Images

For many enthusiasts of gastronomy, a cherished aspect of vacationing is indulging in the complimentary continental breakfast or breakfast buffet at a hotel.

Yet, amidst the bliss of vacationing lies a formidable deterrent: falling victim to a foodborne ailment that relegates you to the confines of the bathroom. Foods left out for extended durations, a common occurrence in morning spreads, pose significant risks of bacterial contamination. Thus, it becomes imperative to discern which items are safe for consumption and which ones warrant avoidance.

Dr. Ellen Shumaker, director of outreach for the Safe Plates initiative at North Carolina State University, elucidates, “Two crucial factors come to mind that heighten the risk of contracting foodborne illnesses: the maintenance of food temperatures and the potential contamination by fellow guests due to inadequate hand hygiene.”

Oftentimes, tainted food doesn’t betray its contamination through taste, underscoring the importance of vigilance beforehand.

Dr. Bryan Quoc Le, a seasoned food scientist and consultant, remarks, “Various microorganisms have the potential to contaminate food, proving to be pathogenic or toxin-producing. For instance, certain strains of E. coli, salmonella, or listeria can wreak havoc with just a few cells.”

We’ve consulted with experts in food safety to unveil what they steer clear of and what they feel comfortable consuming at a hotel breakfast.

Avoid: Hot foods (such as meat or egg products) left unattended without adequate heat. “Maintaining the warmth of hot foods and the chill of cold ones is paramount,” emphasizes Shumaker. “This prevents the temperature ‘danger zone’ where bacteria thrive.”

When foods linger in the temperature ‘danger zone’ (between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit) for over two hours, harmful germs proliferate rapidly, as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In settings like buffets or continental breakfasts, it’s highly likely that food surpasses this timeframe.

If you spot sausages, bacon, scrambled eggs, or quiches sans any heating apparatus, it’s advisable to bypass them. These items ought to be kept warm using devices like hot plates or chafing dishes, advises Shumaker.

Meat and eggs devoid of a heat source? That’s a glaring red flag. AscentXmedia via Getty Images

Avoid: Chilled foods (like dairy products and fresh juices) inadequately refrigerated. “If milk sits out without refrigeration or ice, I’d definitely steer clear,” cautions Le.

Ensuring perishables such as yogurt, cheeses, and deli meats remain cold and steer clear of the temperature ‘danger zone’ is crucial. Some precut fruits and vegetables, like tomatoes, leafy greens, and melons, should also be chilled. Shumaker explains that when sliced, these items create favorable conditions for bacterial growth due to their moisture content and pH levels.

Fresh juices, both pasteurized and unpasteurized, ought to be kept cold. While shelf-stable juices don’t require refrigeration, as per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Individually packaged creamers and butter packets are exempt from refrigeration requirements. Shumaker elucidates that these items undergo treatment to eradicate bacteria, and the presence of salt in butter contributes to its shelf stability.

Avoid: Fruits and vegetables exhibiting signs of sogginess or difficulty in cleaning. While Le typically partakes from a pristine salad bar, he remains vigilant for indications of improper handling. Soft edges or the presence of dirt on the surfaces may signal aging or inadequate washing.

Melons, such as cantaloupes, pose particular risks since people often neglect washing the rinds, he notes. Damaged rinds carrying bacteria can contaminate the interior of the fruit and cross-contaminate other produce.

“Fresh vegetables plucked from the earth, like lettuce or cabbage, can accumulate dirt if not washed diligently,” adds Le. “Dirt fosters the proliferation of various microorganisms.”

Dr. Shumaker advises against consuming raw sprouts like alfalfa or mung bean due to their susceptibility to harbor E. coli, salmonella, and listeria.

Avoid: Shared bowls lacking serving utensils. While that fruit tray may entice, the absence of a serving utensil coupled with bare-handed contact poses contamination risks, as per Shumaker.

When employing shared utensils or condiments, ensure your hands are clean to mitigate contamination risks.

“Other guests may not have diligently washed their hands after restroom use or may have indulged in finger-licking before handling communal items,” observes Dr. Jonathan Deutsch, a culinary arts and science professor at Drexel University.

Norovirus, colloquially known as the “stomach bug,” often spreads from unclean hands to utensils and surfaces.

“Unless meticulously cleaned and sanitized, norovirus can linger on surfaces for extended periods,” warns Shumaker.

Which foods and beverages are safest to enjoy during a hotel breakfast? Aside from maintaining optimal food temperatures and practicing hand hygiene, there are several items deemed safe for consumption.

“I tend to trust packaged items like muffins or individual yogurts more, given the rigorous safety protocols involved in their production,” states Le. “Moreover, they remain untouched by human hands.”

Deutsch highlights whole, uncut fruits like bananas or oranges, made-to-order options such as omelets, and cereals dispensed from machines (remember to sanitize your hands after handling the dispenser) as generally safe choices, especially for individuals with compromised immune systems.

For those at elevated risk of foodborne illnesses, including individuals with weakened immune systems or expectant mothers, being mindful of safer food options and avoidance strategies is paramount, according to the CDC.

Conduct thorough research and trust your instincts. In addition to adhering to safety guidelines, consulting inspection reports for eateries and lodgings can offer valuable insights (these reports are typically available to the public in the United States and many other countries, notes Deutsch).

When dining out, don’t hesitate to inquire about food handling practices, urges Deutsch. “And always trust your instincts—if something seems dubious or if you have underlying health conditions, it’s wise to pack some protein bars.”

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