4 questions to ask yourself at the salad bar

If you do manage to avoid germs, and if the food's been kept at the proper temperature, can you manage to enjoy a healthy lunch at a salad bar? That depends on what you serve yourself.

4 questions to ask yourself at the salad bar

1. Do salad bars pose health risks?

Essentially, yes. Even if the food's been washed properly, it can spoil if not kept at the proper temperature. And customers may introduce germs. Salad bars pose some dangers, mainly due to two unpleasant realities:

  1. You aren't the only person enjoying the salad bar.
  2. The employees caring for the salad bar may not be doing their job.

2. What are the biggest concerns?

Yes, of course, you're always gambling a little whenever you eat a restaurant meal, but salad bars carry extra risks:

  1. They're usually stocked with prepackaged raw foods that may not have been washed properly.
  2. The foods tend to sit out, exposed to the air, for hours on end.
  3. Some of the foods need to be kept either very cold (such as salad dressings) or very hot (such as soups) so that bacteria don't breed. Some foods also need to be tossed frequently, and may not be.
  4. Maybe most important, the food is constantly fondled, poked and pawed by other customers.

3. How do other customers contaminate salad bars?

A survey conducted at the University of California found that restaurant salad bar patrons committed all sorts of sins, including:

  • Handling food with their fingers
  • Ducking their heads under the plastic sneeze guard to reach distant foods
  • Dipping their fingers into the salad dressings to get a taste

4. Am I likely to get sick?

  • If you use good judgment, the chances that you'll get sick are relatively small. But it's a wonder that more food poisoning outbreaks aren't blamed on salad bars.
  • Exact figures are hard to pin down since many cases of food poisoning go unreported.
  • Of the 1,247 food-borne disease outbreaks reported to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2006, only four were traced back to salad bars.
  • Yet nearly 100 were traced to salads of various types and their accoutrements, almost all of which were eaten away from home.
  • Many salad bars offer the healthiest fare that restaurants serve. And if you decide to take your chances, the odds are with you.
  • In one encouraging study, an analysis of 2,950 salad bars found that only three percent of the vegetables tested had dangerous amounts of bacteria, such as E. coli.

There, spread before you, is a cornucopia of nature's fresh bounty, from crisp salad greens to glistening olives to brightly coloured vegetables. But "fresh" is relative. Your health risks are relatively low when it comes to salad bars, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be cautious.

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