Insights & Actions for Healthy Living
Detective Foodsafe™ and the Case of the Buffet Illness

Detective Foodsafe™ and the Case of the Buffet Illness

It was a stormy night that began a hectic week of investigation for Detective Foodsafe™.

Called to the 24 hour All You Can Eat Buffet on 33rd Street and 4th Avenue in the heart of the city, she tries to fight the wind and pouring rain to observe the scene. Reports were rolling in from several callers to the helpline that this buffet was breaking all the rules!

People were falling ill after eating here. Detective Foodsafe™ decided to get a bird’s eye view of the buffet line and kitchen and then interview some of the possible foodborne illness victims.

A Clue, A Clue or Many Clues!

Detective Foodsafe enters the buffet restaurant and takes a seat at a table. A waitress comes over and asks for her drink order.

The detective’s radar goes on high alert as she looks at the woman’s outfit. She notices that her apron is visibly stained with all assortments of foods and condiments. Her hair is falling loosely down her back and she has a cut on two fingers that looks weepy.

“Oh no, I think this might be the tip of the iceberg!” the detective says to her assistant.

After asking for a glass of water, the detective gets in line for the buffet. She picks up a greasy plate and watches the other diners at the service line.

She observes:

  • A man pick up chicken wings with his fingers.
  • A teenager with this man sneezed and then coughed for a prolonged time standing over the salad bar.
  • The salad fixin’s were in pans floating in water including the cheese and ham chunks.
  • Another man dropped the one serving spoon for three hot side dishes onto the floor and placed it back on the serving line into the green beans.
  • There were food pieces strewn all over the floor at the line. A cockroach scurried over the wilted lettuce near her toes.
  • A server came and dumped another batch of macaroni and cheese over the remnants in the pan on the buffet line.

She had seen enough and asked to inspect the kitchen.

Once inside the operation she observed numerous problems, including cases of food stored on the floor (with the cockroaches), none of the cooks washing their hands during her visit, one worker with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and uncooked food sitting on a back counter was warm to her touch.

Naturally there was no food thermometer in sight. Naturally.

Detective Foodsafe Interviews the Callers

There was little question in the mind of Detective Foodsafe that the buffet restaurant was in violation of numerous food codes and needed to take corrective action to avoid sickening anyone else. It was time to get the details from the callers who reported them.

Caller #1: “I was getting off work late Tuesday night and decided to eat at the buffet on the way home. I ate some of everything on the buffet line to get my money’s worth. It looked a little dirty to me but I already paid so I just kept eating. The waitress was a nice person. After I got home, I went to bed but woke up with vomiting and a bit later I had diarrhea. I couldn’t keep water down. I feel better now but I was afraid others might get sick so I called.”

Caller #2: “I called to let someone know about that buffet. It was the dirtiest place I’ve ever seen. I took one look at the buffet foods and the food on the floor and left! I never ate there but it was bad so I wanted someone to do something about it.”

Caller #3: “My whole family ate there after shopping on Saturday. We all got sick even my little girl. She didn’t even eat that much. She ate macaroni and cheese, it’s her favorite. My husband had the wings and the green beans. I had a salad with all the toppings. We got sick later in the evening. I will never go back there and was afraid for other people, so I called the hotline.

Detective Foodsafe decides she has heard enough and calls the health department to take action to close this restaurant until they can make corrections to serve only safe foods. This staff needs training and supervision to learn how to safely handle food.

Can You Spot the Dangers of Foodborne Illness?

Becoming ill from the food that we eat is a direct result of improper food handling. Sometimes the signs are not as obvious as the ones in this buffet restaurant.

It is not always easy to avoid becoming ill, whether while we dine out or even at home. Even a clean restaurant can serve unsafe foods at times. It only takes a few gaps in handling the food from receiving to serving to risk food contamination.


  • The first way to prevent foodborne illness is to wash hands. In this case the employees including the cooks were not washing their hands properly. The waitress should have treated and covered the cuts on her fingers to prevent contamination.


  • Handling foods safely and preventing cross contamination is key to prevent illness. The server who dropped the new food on top of old food that may have gone out of the temperature danger zone puts people at risk. Then new food was mixed with potentially dangerous food. Remember, there was no thermometer around which should be used to test if the food no longer is at the correct temperature. When foods enter the temperature danger zone, the potential for bacterial growth increases making the food unsafe. Foods should be cooked thoroughly to the proper internal temperature before they are served. Who would know without a thermometer?


  • No one wants pests in their food. When you see one, there are usually more bugs. A restaurant that allows bugs under the serving line and on the food cases is not following safe food practices.


  • Using utensils that have fallen on the floor or dirty plates can contribute to unsafe food practices. Also, there should be a spoon for each item to prevent cross contamination, no one should pick up food without a utensil. If you use the spoon from the spoiled macaroni and cheese in the green beans, you could be sickened by the remainder of the macaroni and cheese you never actually ate. Buffets should replace any serving utensil that falls on the floor.


  • Keeping food at the correct temperature on the buffet serving line will help prevent foodborne illness. All cold items should be kept cold over ice or in a refrigerated section. The hot food should be kept hot throughout the service. Temperatures should be monitored with a thermometer every two hours and any food removed from the buffet that isn’t at the proper temperature including cold food.


  • The equipment on a healthy buffet line should function properly. The heat and refrigeration source should be working. A sneeze guard at the right height should be installed to prevent airborne germs from contaminating the foods. The correct size pans should be used so the food doesn’t sit on the line all day. Smaller amounts can be added directly from the kitchen and fresh, healthy food served.

How You Can Protect Yourself and Your Family

Detective Foodsafe™ was able to see inside the kitchen so she had a great viewpoint to determine that the workers were putting the food at risk for contamination. We are all not able to see what they are doing behind closed doors.

We need to pick up on the clues we can see when deciding if a particular restaurant is safe for our family. When you walk in the door, does the place look clean or filthy? Does it smell? Do the wait staff look clean and well kept, is their hair pulled back in a hairnet, clip or hat?

When you look at the dishes and cups, are they clean? Is the table or floor sticky? Is the buffet line clean or does it look sloppy with spilled and dried on foods all over the top and sides? Is there a sneeze guard, is it at the right height and enough utensils? Does the server check the food to be sure it hasn’t gone out of temperature? Is the buffet line working to keep food hot and cold?

Is there a recent inspection that you can read? Did they get a low score and just barely squeak by?

Even without looking at the kitchen, you can tell when a place may serve you food that is dangerous. You can leave as caller #2 did if you suspect that your food may put you and your family at risk.

Detective Foodsafe will be on the lookout to help you keep your family safe!


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