Food Safety at the Salad Bar

Salad bars at both restaurants and grocery stores present some safety concerns. Salad bars used to offer only salad fixings—the cold lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, and other produce items that consumers usually use to make a cold salad. But as the appetite for prepared foods has grown, so have the diversity and real estate of the salad bar. Now it’s common to see several bars in a single store, containing not just cold salad items, but also grain salads (quinoa, wheatberry), cold prepared salads (egg, chicken, and tuna salads), and a variety of hot items for both vegetarians and meat eaters.

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The most important concern about salad bars is the temperature of the various foods. Hot foods should be hot—if you can’t see steam, steer clear. Cold foods should be cold—not just cool, but refrigerator cold to keep most bacteria from multiplying. Once foods enter the mid-range of temperatures, bacteria luxuriate like they are in a spa, multiplying and endangering consumers.

If the salad bar is holding everything at the right temperature, be sure that a plastic “splash guard” is covering the food to keep out germs from customers (including you). If there’s no guard, skip the salad: whether it’s a sneeze or a hair or something else, it’s very easy for salad ingredients to become contaminated with germs that cause diarrhea or worse. Utensils at salad bars are also a key point of contamination.

Last but not least, scan the lip around the bar area. It should be clean and pest-free— no flies buzzing around and no congealed food spills. Flies can carry bacteria, and the presence of insects and old food spills indicates that the grocery store isn’t managing the salad bar well. If they aren’t cleaning the area often, they may also not be regulating the temperature of the foods and replacing the foods with enough frequency. (Insider tip: use this same advice when dining out at a restaurant. If the common areas or the restrooms aren’t kept clean, more important food-safety measures may be falling through the cracks as well.)

 

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