Are Salad Bars Dirty? You May Not Want to Know the Answer

Lisa Lacy

Oh, the salad bar -- the healthy work-time lunch option that affords so much choice. But there has to be a reason they have sneeze guards, right? And even with the Plexiglas, can you ever be sure they're totally sanitary with so many hands reaching in to pull out the veggies beneath?

Even if your fellow salad bar enthusiasts are using tongs, how can you be sure those other hands won't leave behind something that could potentially make you sick? (Both literally and figuratively ...)

If you're worried, your best bet may be to find a new place to have lunch. (Or to bring a salad from home -- where you know exactly where those vegetables have been and who has been touching them.)

But here's the official scoop:

According to the FDA, local health departments are responsible for maintaining safety standards at local eating establishments, such as the deli with your favorite salad bar.

An FDA rep says, "The FDA supports their work by encouraging states and localities to adopt a model food code, which assists food control jurisdictions at all levels of government by providing them with a scientifically sound technical and legal basis for regulating the retail and food service segment of the industry. Local, state, tribal, and other federal regulators can use the FDA Food Code to develop or update their own food safety rules and to be consistent with national food regulatory policy."

The FDA rep adds that some local governments post inspection results on their websites. Diners in such areas can check there for more information.

Of course, this doesn't guarantee you won't end up with a hair in your salad, but it'll at least help you avoid establishments with lots of violations that -- anecdotally at least -- might increase the odds of a nasty lunchtime discovery.

You may also want to give the following some thought: Wilfred Seymour, executive chef at Toronto amusement park Canada's Wonderland, says salad bars and buffet restaurants are sanitary, but there are no guarantees when it comes to the people who eat there.

"One thing I notice is that people put their hands into food and touch stuff. I always look out for this and make sure to have this product replaced with new items," he says.

And if you have any food allergies or intolerances, you'll want to be especially careful with the communal salad bar.

Dietitian Rachel Begun notes there is a high risk of cross-contamination at salad bars.

"A dairy-free dressing is no longer dairy-free if a drop of yogurt fell into the dressing well," she says. "The chickpeas aren't gluten-free if crumbs from the croutons fell into the chickpea well. You get the point."

I don't mean to ruin salad bars for you forever ... just some proverbial food for thought the next time you ask yourself, "What's for lunch?"

Will you continue to eat at salad bars?

Image via WalkingGeek/Flickr

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