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Why Do Hotel Buffets Make You Touch The Same Tongs As Everyone Else, And Call It Sanitary? – View from the Wing

Why Do Hotel Buffets Make You Touch The Same Tongs As Everyone Else, And Call It Sanitary?

Hotel buffets are frequently much cheaper to offer than cooked to order food. They can prepare the food en masse, rather than staffing the kitchen to cook for peak guest load in the dining room. And they don’t need nearly as much wait staff, either, since customers usually aren’t placing orders for very many things and the food doesn’t have to be run out to tables by employees. Yet somehow you’re still expected to tip just as much!

Provided a hotel has a significant guest occupancy, buffets can make tremendous financial sense. And there’s a reason some of the best buffets are in the biggest hotels such as those found in Las Vegas. They simply provide efficiencies at scale. But are they… hygienic?

During the pandemic many hotels eliminated buffets both because of fear of virus spread (especially when the belief was that Covid-19 spread primarily via fomites rather than aerosols) but also because lower hotel occupancy rates drove down the efficiency of offering buffets. (Some hotels closed their food and beverage outlets altogether.)

We saw staff serving guests directly, often via orders placed using QR codes. That meant a single staff member (or a server plus someone in the kitchen) handling food, rather than all guests in the hotel exposing themselves to your meal. When staffing became the binding constraint, we saw buffets return. But don’t they still have the same hygiene problems we suddenly became sensitized to during Covid?

Indeed, here’s a great question: you aren’t supposed to touch the food that you are going to take and eat. Instead you’re supposed to touch the same tongs everyone else has touched to pick up that food.

If you pick up a bagel off of the buffet, you touch only your own bagel and nobody else’s. But if you touch the tongs and use it to pick up the bagel, you’re touching the same thing that everyone else at the buffet has already touched. Surely that leads to greater spread of germs!

There’s a chance that touching a bagel might lead you to inadvertently touch another bagel. But with shared tongs, coming into contact with something someone else has touched is a certainty!

Here are potential arguments for tongs,

  • In theory utensils should get changed out regularly, but so should food! The buffet leaves food out (unsafe for other reasons) but switches out tongs.
  • Tongs don’t hold onto germs for as long as food does. It depends on the material the tongs are made out of!
  • Touching food directly can deposit microbes straight onto the food, and then the next guest ingests those. While touching tongs might transfer the microbes onto someone else’s hands. But if they’re washing their hands regularly they may not ingest them.

A buffet actually interested in preventing spread of germs would make single-use tongs available to each guest. Use the tongs, deposit them for disinfecting once you’ve served yourself. But the goal isn’t preventing spread of germs, it’s conforming to (1) health codes, and (2) social convention.


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