November 12th, 2017

Poll: Adventures in Buffet Dining — Is It Time to Get Rid of Those Food Tongs?

My friend Joel Gallant wrote this provocative post on his heavily trafficked Facebook page:

While standing in line at the cafeteria today, it occurred to me that it was once acceptable to use your fingers to pick up a bagel, a piece of bread, or a cookie from a tray, but this is now viewed as an antisocial act. Everything requires a serving utensil, including tongs for hand-held food. I’m no germophobe, but it occurred to me, while trying to wrestle a very large bagel off a tray using a very small pair of tongs, that this new etiquette is a big step backwards in terms of hygiene and infection control.

Imagine a cafeteria line during cold season. Someone in front of you has a viral infection. Perhaps he blew or wiped his nose before getting in line, or sneezed into his hands instead of his sleeves. Which would would you prefer: that he grab a cookie between his thumb and index finger, with the risk that he MIGHT touch an adjacent cookie in the process, or that he pick up a pair of plastic tongs with his snot-laden hands, the same pair of tongs that will be handled by everyone who follows him in line?

I’m lucky for two reasons — first, Joel gave me permission to bring this important issue to you readers of this site, whose interests skew towards matters of infections in general, and likely for some of you, food safety.

Second, he’s such a clear writer that he’s articulated the debate perfectly. Do these ubiquitous serving tongs actually prevent infections? Or do they facilitate their spread?

To clarify, this controversy is only about the use of tongs for dry food items — bagels, cookies, a slice of bread, a muffin. No one is suggesting we start using our hands to serve ourselves sliced cucumbers in the salad bar, or lasagna and beef bourguignon in the cafeteria line.

That would just be messy, infectious risks aside.

A quick search on the matter quickly yields this study, which not surprisingly shows that E. coli can be passed back and forth between hands and salad tongs.

And if it’s viruses you’re worried about, this study showed plenty of norovirus and adenovirus on “environmental surfaces” at “food service operations” — but did not specifically mention tongs.

For the record, Joel expressed his personal conflict of interest on the matter:

Disclaimer: I’m not impartial; I’m a klutz with tongs.

He also sent me this photo of tongs being used for foil-wrapped food, which he views as an example of tong-mania taken to an absurd extreme. Practically a “Tong [sic] Dynasty”, if you’ll pardon the terrible pun.

I guess he’s obsessed.

So what do you think?

What is the safest way to pick up a dry food item at a cafeteria or buffet?

View Results


22 Responses to “Poll: Adventures in Buffet Dining — Is It Time to Get Rid of Those Food Tongs?”

  1. marvin rabinowitz says:

    the supermarkets in my area have us use single-use waxed paper for “bagels” and muffins. i think this is preferable. and i now have to rethink my euphemisms for buffets as salmonella or e coli bars to include viruses.

  2. Salin Nhean says:

    Larry from Curb Your Enthusiasm definitely agrees with Dr. Gallant.

  3. Mimi Breed says:

    My favorite is the ubiquitous universal pen or stylus with which one is asked to sign one’s credit/debit receipt in pharmacies and physician’s offices at the height of flu season…after said instrument has been handled by thousands of other sick people. IF hand-sanitizer is supplied, it’s normally hidden behind some clutter. I suppose such mass inoculation with germs is good business promotion for druggists and health care facilities.

  4. Loretta S says:

    Grab a napkin and pick the item up with the napkin as a kind of overlay. Similar to the waxed paper supplied at self-serve roll and bagel bins at supermarkets. Better than tongs or direct contact with hands. Tongs with a foil-wrapped food are… hysterical. In both senses of the word.

    I stopped eating from salad bars and buffets long ago for a number of reasons. But high on my list of reasons was hearing the clear acrylic item over the food referred to as the “sneeze guard”. Yuck. Smithsonian Magazine even did a story on the guy who patented sneeze guards:

  5. sara says:

    While I lean germaphobe and he makes an excellent point, I’m still inclined to favor the tongs because I can wash my hands after handling the tongs before eating whereas I can’t really wash my food. Although, in reality, I’m partial to grabbing that kind of stuff with a napkin anyway.

    • Jennifer says:

      Totally agree. You can always wash your hands after touching tongs – and should – but no way to know if someone had been fingering your food with bare hands. Ew.

  6. JDO says:

    Consider if children are involved. They are germ-laden AND sloppy with few qualms or infectious considerations touching or trying many cookies before taking just the right one.
    I avoid or “take one from the back” if kids are around, tongs or not.
    And they are short enough to get under the sneeze guard.

  7. Thomas s says:

    Do not assume that people reach in with their hands and pick the first bagel they see. Instead they dig through the stack to find the largest bagel. Talk to any store or restaurant worker who has to empty containers without tongs at the end of the day and they will tell you about the large number of fingernails at the bottom of the containers. Tongs are clearly safer. And if you want to be extra safe, just use your knife and fork to eat your meal avoiding picking up food on your plate with your hands

    • Denis says:

      Fingernails‽‽ What fingernails? Were they avulsed, or do the workers speculate that someone who didn’t quite finish trimming a nail decide to reach in to grab an item? How does someone leave fingernails behind when reaching into a food container?

  8. andi says:

    If people are losing fingernails by the billions in bagel bins, I think we have a bigger public health crisis than we thought…. leprosy is back?

  9. Nour says:

    I think an even better solution is to have someone serve you with tongs. On cruises, for example, where the risk for germ spread is pretty high, you are not allowed to use the tongs yourself. However, that will mean, longer cafeteria lines.

  10. daniela says:

    i prefer to eat in restaurants, where chefs can pick their butts and poke my food before i binge in blissful ignorance.
    otherwise, i wear my neck autoclave.

  11. Joel Gallant says:

    Although germophobe sentiment seems to predominate in the comments section, I’m glad the larger poll results reflect the two most sensible answers. Now maybe we should discuss why it’s become the norm to open bathroom doors with paper towels (which are then thrown on the floor) even though it’s the place where people are most likely to have just washed their hands. Meanwhile, we open all other doors without worrying about infectious consequences. And then there’s this larger question for Paul: has there ever been ANY evidence that germophobes get fewer infectious illnesses than anyone else?

  12. Yehuda says:

    If the tongs are solely for appearance and etiquette purposes only, then just use the tongs. Otherwise, what the heck. That’s why our stomachs secrete acid.

  13. Eric says:

    I still take comfort remembering the bouncer standing at the doorway to the foodline on the cruise ship wielding a bagpipe sized dispenser of purell. Nobody got by him without a handful!
    And as for stomach acid, good luck to all my PPI patients. Its another talking point I use in encouraging them to lose weight so they can reduce their usage of PPI’s.
    Come to think of it, they shouldn’t be in that food line at all. Go grab a greek yogurt and a banana.

    • Susan says:

      One of my biggest pet peeves in primary care. When make changes when I can just take a pill!! Yeesh. Let me tell you why….

  14. chaze burnett says:

    Purell, hand washing & other hygienic measures notwithstanding, one must accept that open containers of food served in this fashion will always be subject to significant contamination and constitute risk to any consumer. Kitchens are filthier than bathrooms for many reasons, including terrible food handling practices.

    My advice: seek out prepackaged food& drink, as others have suggested above.

  15. Gettothechopper says:

    Was thinking this very thing at a hotel recently. Proceeded to develop nasty URTI.

  16. Rogerio Luz Coelho says:

    You developed-country-people are funny …
    What’s a life without some stomach flu or normal flu for that matter? As if the bugs ever killed an American kid in a salad bar … EVER!!

    You guys die because you eat the burritos and the bagels, because you treat every single running nose with Azithromycin, because PPI and Staying are being delivered as candy … NOT the bugs that come with them !!

HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

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NEJM Journal Watch
Infectious Diseases

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