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Health Department Regulations on Buffet

I'm from a small town, and we have very few restaurants. I'm thinking four )-:

The one with the best food usually is a small Chinese place with a buffet. It's small batch with seating for maybe 30 and the bulk take out from the buffet what I've seen. All workers appear to be family and with long and hard hours. One of the girls is pregnant and not working at the moment from what I can tell. That may not seem like a big deal, but I think they only have 5 people total.

The time before last that I ate there, it was right at 5 pm. Food bins were close to empty. But, they cooked more food and poured it on top, put in new trays and put the old food in and stirred some and not others. So, I ended up with some food I'm sure was from lunch and spoiled. I had some stomach issues for two days. I can't prove that was it, but I'm sure it was.

My family went again this Sunday, and I watched close. The time gap could not have been as large, but I saw them put in new trays of food and dump the old on top. I avoided the mixed batch trays.

Perhaps this is common in the food industry. I really don't know. That's why I'm posting. I'd never mix batches, but I'm not sure if that is OK or not in restaurant buffets.

I've thought about mentioning this to someone who works there, but they do not all speak really good English. I've also thought about seeing if the Health Dept would go over the basics on food safety (though I still do not know if the mixing is outside standards).

Any suggestions or information would be appreciated. This is a nice family working hard, and the food is really good when fresh. Mixing in the food that has been sitting there for who knows how long does not seem like it could be acceptable (but maybe I do not know food rules for restaurants). I don't want to give a small place a hard time, but I don't want food from lunch poured in right at dinner and off on the taste and my stomach churning for two days either.

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  1. As long as the food (either the old or the new batch) are held or brought up to the required temp (usu. around 135F) then there's nothing wrong from a health and safety perspective.

    2 Replies
    1. re: ipsedixit

      Thanks for the info.

      I'm sure the lunch food poured in at 5 pm was not up to temp, but I can't prove that. It was cold and "off." The amounts were small, so it's a shame they did not just chalk up a cup or so of food in a bin.

      I guess I'll just watch and look close.

      1. re: CyndiA

        If you could tell, it was cold, then it is not being held at the proper temp. And yes that is a violation, but worst, a health concern.
        As for what to do, that is up to you. If you value the place and wish to continue to eat there, but safely, you should place a call to the county health department.

        Yes many buffets mix or add as they go, from the big time casino buffets down to the small, such as you describe. The issues to be considered are freshness (no dried out or wilted stuff) and safety.

    2. If you are concerned, then you should contact whatever agency has responsibility for restaurant food hygiene where you are in the world.

      Mixing new and old food seems to be fairly commonplace in buffet set-ups where I am. Doesnt make it hygienic - and it may be an indicator of a wider poor kitchen practice - but it may indicate it isnt a contravention of national or local regulations.

      1. I struggle with buffets. My biggest issue is that the food is held warm and then food is added to the old batch. I think the food sweats and it is just not up to par for me. That being said most of the buffet places that survive how high volume clientele so the good ones survive.

        1. One of the difficulties of discussing health department regulations on a board like this is of course that such standards vary by locality. Here, there definitely would be regulations about how long food can be held and what the proper temperature should be. Just what those limits are I don't know but I see them mentioned in the health department citations all the time.

          What is permissible to the authorities and what is appetizing to you is not necessarily the same of course. As others have suggested, I think mixing 'old food' and 'new' is very common, and if it isn't being done in front of the customers, it may well be going on in the kitchen. If this bothers you you may have to avoid buffets completely.

          My question is, how do you know the food you saw being mixed on your first visit had been sitting out since lunch? Was the restaurant closed after lunch right up until 5 pm? Perhaps there was a big crowd at 4 that they had cooked a bunch of food for and they had just cleared out before you arrived. I personally would have a problem with food that had been sitting out for, say, four hours being served to me at all, whether mixed with more recently cooked food or not.

          Given your level of concern, I definitely would give a call to your local health department just to ascertain what the local standards are if nothing else. Then you have to make up your own mind about what's acceptable to you.

          1. It's simple, actually.
            Call your county health inspector. You've got a question, there seems to be a problem from what you intuitively can discern and you'd like someone to go out and inspect it.
            It's a small town so there shouldn't be a problem with them going out in a timely manner. If there's a problem they'll take care of it. If there's not then you've got peace of mind.
            Mixing new food on top of old food is cause for concern. I'm fully aware of this happening at a business I frequent and they were shut down for the length of time it took to get things back in order. In the meantime the health inspectors found all kinds of other problems in the kitchen.
            At this point I would think you owe it to the other people, with less awareness, to call attention to what you've seen. I'd be a good thing.

            1. It's real easy for folks that know nothing about food service or the hardships of running a restaruant to go "call the health Dept." That's all I've got to say about that.

              4 Replies
              1. re: mrbigshotno.1

                I know quite a bit, actually, about food handling and the 'hardships of running a restaurant'.

                The health department is a great resource for the public who is depending on the knowledge and concern of owners of establishments who are supposed to be making wise decisions. Many times they don't and this is why we call them.
                BTW....running a restaurant is a choice.

                1. re: mrbigshotno.1

                  Yeah, but if you were to say more about that, what might it be.

                  Do you have a view on whether the public should call a health department if they have concerns about a restaurant? Or that they should not do anything, because they are not industry professionals? If they shouldnt call the Department, do you have a view as to what they might do? Contact the owner, perhaps? Or do nothing other than, possibly, never eat there again?

                  I can certainly understand that, from a restaurant owner's point of view, cutting corners on hygiene matters can improve profit margins - at least in the short term until the word gets around that the place is an unsafe place to eat.

                  1. re: mrbigshotno.1

                    But isn't that why the Health Department exists? If it's not a violation, they can tell the OP over the phone. If it is an illegal or unsafe practice, they can rectify it. Just because running a restaurant is a difficult business (and I don't doubt for a moment that it is), safety doesn't go out the window.

                    1. re: mrbigshotno.1

                      Oh, bull dinky.
                      One does not need to be a food handler, nor be in the business, to know when something is wrong and unsafe.

                      It is the same as seeing a crime, accident, or fire and reporting it to the proper authorities.

                    2. I'd call the health department if I wanted to continue to eat there. Following the codes is best in the long run for customers and owners. If they are cutting corners in view of the customers, lord knows what's going on in the back of the house.

                      1. I'll put it to you this way:
                        No anonymous calls, If you fell so strongly about it, you should reveal you're identity to the authority.
                        If in fact you're claim is valid, you receive accolades, if not you receive a fine for false reporting.
                        One of the biggest chefs on food network said " The food police have they're place, just as long as it is'nt in MY place".
                        Nobody's saying we don't need a health department.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: mrbigshotno.1

                          Who cares in the end? Anonymous or not? As long as the problem is rectified what does it matter?
                          A fine for 'false reporting'? What are you talking about? There is no such thing. The OP is simply asking.
                          The OP calls gives his/her name, if he/she chooses (it's not mandatory) and they open a case or don't open a case. Based on what the OP reports the Health Department makes the determination if they go out and check it out.

                          1. re: mrbigshotno.1

                            "One of the biggest chefs on food network"

                            Your first mistake was thinking anything said on the food network was relevant in the real world.

                            1. re: mrbigshotno.1

                              Accolades from who? Is there an annual People Who Reported Stuff to the Health Department award nobody told me about?

                            2. Putting leftovers from one tray on top of the same food in another tray is very common, even in high end buffets. Often all the food was cooked at the same time anyway and just kept warm in the kitchen. What you see as 'old' or 'new' may very well be all the same batch.