Buffets and Bacteria – A cautionary tale

My husband and I returned home from Israel a few days ago, having survived a bout of food poisoning (him) and some serious jet lag (both of us). It had been several years since we had last undertaken such an ambitious voyage, and our trip was a sharp reminder of the need to be vigilant about food safety while away from home.

Shakshuka on offer at the Leonardo Plaza Hotel, Eilat

As I mentioned in my October 5th post, generous buffet breakfasts are the norm in Israeli hotels. In addition to eggs cooked to order, guests can help themselves to a variety of salads, cheeses, hot dishes, smoked fish and breakfast pastries, in addition to a dish known as ‘shakshuka’.

According to Wikipedia, shakshuka consists of eggs poached in a tomato-based sauce that may also contain a variety of other ingredients, including peppers, onion, cheese, and various cooked vegetables. Although it can be made with meat, the concoction we were offered was meatless.

The buffet at the Leonardo Plaza Hotel in Eilat was typical of Israeli breakfast offerings we had experienced during our previous visit to Israel in 1995.

The salad bar was located adjacent to the dining room entrance. The food was entirely exposed; susceptible to contamination from any airborne bacteria or viruses propelled by a sneeze or cough.

Fresh salad bar

Some of the cold prepared dishes were better protected, in refrigerated displays

Temperature reading 6.9ºC
Temperature reading 0ºC

These cheesecakes were displayed in what was nominally a refrigerated case, yet the temperature display was dark. Defective display or no refrigeration? Also, note the individual servings of custard – a perishable food – resting unprotected and unrefrigerated on the counter next to the “refrigerated” cheesecakes.

Temperature display not functioning

The hot items were under better temperature control, as the various casserole pans rested on hot plates. These dishes were shielded, and also were warmed by heat lamps from above.

Some of the items, including the shakshuka, were heated only from below, and were exposed to the open air.

Alas, after my husband’s nasty food poisoning episode on the first morning of our trip, this ‘sumptuous’ buffet was wasted on us. We were both especially cautious for the rest of the trip, limiting our breakfasts to fresh-cooked omelets, bread, breakfast pastries, and halvah.

Whether in Israel, Myanmar, Europe or the USA, whether in a hotel, in a restaurant, or on a cruise ship, it pays to eat defensively. Don’t let your salivary glands rule your selections. Choose your food wisely to stay healthy.