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Buffet Safety

Popular holiday serving style can lead to bacteria without proper care

An unwelcome party guest might be lingering at your holiday buffet – bacteria. According to the West Virginia University Extension food safety experts, foodborne illnesses can result from bacteria that breed on foods left out over long period.

“It’s better to be safe than sick,” said Cindy Fitch, Ph.D., a registered dietitian and retired WVU Extension Associate Dean for Research and Nutrition. “There aren’t any obvious signs that a dish at a potluck has gone bad so it’s up to you to use your own discretion when consuming foods at potlucks and buffets.”

During the holiday season, WVU Extension features and the USDA recommend the following guidelines to keep your food safe this season.

How long is food safe on a buffet?

After two hours at room temperature, any uneaten food should be discarded from the buffet. To prevent having to toss uneaten food, keep it at the proper temperature when serving buffet-style. Hot foods should be 140-degrees Fahrenheit or warmer. Achieve this by using chafing dishes, slow cookers and warming trays. Cold foods should be 40-degrees Fahrenheit or colder. Try using a nesting dish in a bowl of ice.

Which containers work best for food safety?

When making dishes in advance, use shallow containers for storing foods to ensure even cooling that helps prevent bacteria growth. When preparing food prior to the party, store cooked foods in the refrigerator or freezer until serving time. Reheat hot foods to 165-degrees Fahrenheit. 

Use a clean dish

If your guests empty a platter or bowl during the party, don’t just refill it. Using a fresh dish reduces the spread of germs and bacteria.

Preparing meats in advance

When preparing food prior to the party, be sure to cook meats to a safe minimum internal temperature. Gauge the temperature by inserting a meat thermometer into the thickest portion of the meat. Cook beef, veal, lamb steaks, roasts and chops to 145-degrees Fahrenheit. Cook pork, ground beef, ground veal and ground lamb to 160-degress Fahrenheit. All poultry dishes should be a minimum of 165-degress Fahrenheit.


“Consuming raw seafood, like oysters, is risky when it comes to buffets,” Fitch explained. “It’s incredibly hard to monitor a safe temperature for these foods when they’re exposed at a party. The best bet is to steer clear of uncooked meats.”

Avoid cross-contamination

Always wash your hands before and after handling food. Serve food on clean plates to minimize the transfer of bacteria. Never serve food on a plate that held raw meat, since the bacteria might cross-contaminate the food.

WVU Extension provides solutions that work for you and your family in all 55 counties. For more information, contact your local WVU Extension office.