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Buffet Service Guidelines

Last modified: 4/4/2013 11:40 AM

Buffet Service Guidelines

Adopted by the California Conference of Directors of Environmental Health (CCDEH) 


  1. INTRODUCTION

    The recent resurgence and proliferation of salad bars, buffet lines, smorgasbords, hors d'oeuvre tables, and similar non-traditional means of retail food service has raised a number of questions as to how local health officials should apply the provisions of the California Uniform Retail Food Facilities Law ("CURFFL") to these operations. The Food Committee of the California Conference of Directors of Environmental Health (the "Food Committee") has promulgated these Buffet Service Guidelines to provide some clarity and uniform requirements in this area.
         Health officials and retail food service operators must always keep in mind the fact that all retail food service activities are ultimately governed by CURFFL. Of necessity, these Guidelines are general in nature and cannot address every situation that will be encountered. Successful enforcement of CURFFL will therefore depend on a reasonable, logical, consistent and practical application of these Guidelines and CURFFL.

  1. SCOPE OF GUIDELINES

    General Coverage
    Definitions
    Applicability of NSF and Similar Standards

  2. General Coverage
    Unless otherwise indicated, these Guidelines shall apply to any buffet service (as defined - see definitions in Section B following) conducted in a retail food establishment where unpackaged prepared food is displayed, served and/ or prepared for the general public (as defined) from counters, tables or similar equipment or installations in dining rooms, lobbies, meeting rooms, bar areas, ballrooms and other areas not traditionally used for food preparation. Outdoor food preparation (other than barbecuing - see Article 9, CURFFL), storage, or display is not allowed pursuant to CURFFL.
         These Guidelines are intended to supersede all other guidelines or recommendations previously published or distributed by the State Department of Health Services, local health departments or agencies which deal with the subjects covered by these Guidelines.

  3. Definitions
    Exclusiveness of Definitions - Unless the context otherwise indicates, certain terms used in these Guidelines are defined as follows:

    1. Buffet or Buffet Service - Refers generally to any permanent, regularly occurring, or temporary operation in a retail food establishment where unpackaged prepared food is displayed, served and/or prepared for the general public from counters, tables or similar equipment or installations in dining rooms, lobbies, meeting rooms, bar areas, ballrooms, and other areas not traditionally used for food preparation. Such activities include, but are not limited to, buffets, smorgasbords, salad bars, sandwich bars, hors d'oeuvre tables, buffet line cooking and similar modes of food display and preparation in restaurants, bars, hotels, grocery stores and supermarkets. As to matters covered by these Guidelines, the terms "buffet" and "buffet service" also include dessert carts and salad carts where used to serve more that one table.
           Exclusions - For purposes of these Guidelines, the term "buffet service" does not include operations such as cafeteria-type food service already covered by CURFFL. Such operations must conform directly to CURFFL Sections 114075 through 114180, inclusive. The term "buffet service" also does not apply to "tableside" food preparation as defined in this section.

    2. Service Line - Refers generally to any table, counter or similar installation or equipment used in buffet service where the customer obtains or receives displayed food.

    3. Self-Service Area - Refers to any part of a service line where unpackaged food is displayed for customer self-service in accordance with CURFFL Section 114080(b).

    4. Attended Station - Refers to any part of a service line where the food is served or handed to the customer by an employee of the retail food establishment, in accordance with CURFFL Section 114080(c).

    5. Cooking Station - Refers to any attended station of a service line where food is prepared for individual customers. Such preparation includes omelet, crepe, pancake or waffle preparation; meat or steak grilling; carving from joints of meat; and assembly of sandwiches or tacos. NOTE: See Guideline No. 6 for ventilation restrictions.

    6. Cooking Equipment - Refers to all electrically energized, gas, charcoal or chemically fueled sources of heat used in the preparation, heating, or temperature maintenance of food. This definition includes candles, canned heat, "Sterno" and similar open flame heat sources. NOTE: See Guideline No. 6 for ventilation restrictions.

    7. Permanent Buffet - Refers generally to the operation of a service line or service line equipment which is placed or installed in a fixed location and used for buffet service on at least a daily basis.

    8. Regularly Occurring Buffet - Refers generally to the operation of a service line or service line equipment whether installed, movable or portable which is used for buffet service at scheduled or fixed times or periodic intervals. For instance, buffet service which occurs daily, weekly, Sunday mornings, Tuesdays and Thursdays, etc., is regularly occurring.

    9. Temporary Buffet - Refers generally to the operation of a service line or service line equipment which is primarily movable or portable and used for buffet service for limited periods on an intermittent, irregular or non-scheduled basis.

    10. Tableside Food Preparation - Refers generally to any preparation of a food item by an employee of the food establishment for an individual customer at the dining table. This term includes, for example, the customary dining room preparation of Steak Diane, Cherries Jubilee, Caesar Salads, Steak Tartare, and similar dishes.

    11. General Public - As used in these Guidelines, buffet service for the "general public" refers to functions to which the general public is invited and where no sponsoring person or entity has contracted with the retail food establishment operator for the function. The term also refers to food service by so-called "clubs" which as a practice sell "memberships" to the general public on a temporary or ad hoc basis.

  4. Applicability of NSF and Similar Standards
    CURFFL Section 114065 requires all new or replacement equipment to meet or be equivalent to applicable National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) standards or be approved by the enforcement officer in the absence of NSF standards.
         Wherever appropriate, the applicable NSF standards are incorporated and noted in these Guidelines. The pertinent NSF standards and the standards of similar organizations must be applied in the Guidelines where appropriate. NOTE: See Appendix A.

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  1. FOOD DISPLAY AND SERVICE - GENERAL SANITATION AND SAFETY REQUIREMENTS GUIDELINE NUMBER 1 - GENERAL OPERATION AND ARRANGEMENT OF SERVICE LINES

    The requirements of this guideline apply to all buffet service.

  2. Service Lines Must Be Kept in a Safe, Clean Condition.
    1. Equipment. All equipment used in a service line, must be maintained in good repair and in a clean manner, free from contamination.
    2. Surfaces. All surfaces of service lines must be kept clean and free from debris.
  3. Safety. All equipment used in service lines must be installed, operated and maintained in a reasonably safe and secure manner. All such equipment and its installation must meet all applicable codes.
  4. Food Displayed in Self-Service Area.
    All food displayed for customer self-service must be displayed within easy reach of the average customer. The maximum distance between the edge of a service line, excluding any tray rail, and the front of the rearmost displayed item cannot exceed 22 inches. However, chafing dishes ("chafers"), oval trays, pans, and similar containers may extend beyond this limit so long as the displayed food begins within the 22 inch limit.
         Two-sided service lines are permissible so long as a space or central barrier is provided which prevents customers from serving themselves from the other side.
         All sneeze-guards or droplet protection devices used in service lines must conform to Guideline No. 2 (Sneeze-guards). Also, the protective surface of the sneeze-guard must be positioned high enough above the displayed food so that it does not interfere with the customer's access to the rearmost displayed food item or use of serving utensils.
  5. Temperature Control.
    CURFFL Section 113995 provides that "all potentially hazardous food, excluding raw shell eggs, shall be held at or below 7° Celsius (45° Fahrenheit) or shall be kept at or above 60° Celsius (140° Fahrenheit) at all times." This means that such food displayed in service lines must be held at the required temperature. Potentially hazardous foods must be rapidly brought to the required temperature before being placed for display in the service line, unless the service line equipment is designed to bring food to the required temperature. An accurate, easily readable metal probe thermometer shall be readily available.
         In accordance with CURFFL Section 114065, all containers, ice beds, templates and other equipment used to display potentially hazardous foods must conform to the applicable NSF standards (including, but not limited to, NSF Standard No. 2 - Food Service Equipment - Sections 2.4 and 2.11.)
  6. Availability of Employee Handwashing Facilities.
    CURFFL Section 114115 requires all food establishments to maintain employee handwashing facilities. However, no additional or special employee handwashing facilities need be provided specifically for service line employees so long as the facilities required by CURFFL Section 114115 are adequate and reasonably accessible to service line employees.
  7. General Droplet Protection Requirement.
    All food displayed in service lines must be protected from droplet contamination in accordance with CURFFL Sections 114010, 114080(b)(2)(A), and 114080(c). Under these Guidelines, displayed food must either be placed under a sneeze-guard or similar droplet protection device as provided by Guideline No. 2 (Sneeze-guards), or placed in a covered or otherwise protected container that meets the standards of Guideline No. 3 (Self-service Stations) or Guideline No. 4 (Attended Stations).

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  1. DROPLET PROTECTION

    GUIDELINE NUMBER 2 - SNEEZE-GUARDS
         A sneeze-guard consists of a barrier, usually glass or plastic, which is placed in front of and well above displayed food to block contaminants expelled from a customer's mouth or nose. Sneeze-guards are often referred to as food shields or food protective devices. In some circumstances, the properly positioned cover of a serving dish may be an acceptable alternative to a sneeze-guard. (See Guideline Numbers 3 and 4).
  2. General Requirement.
    Where required under CURFFL Sections 114080(b)(2)(A) and 114080(c), sneeze-guards must be placed in front of displayed food in order to intercept a direct line between the average customer's mouth and the food displayed within the zone of potential droplet contamination.
  3. Defining the Zone of Potential Droplet Contamination.
    The zone of potential droplet contamination may vary depending on the circumstances. For example, assuming an average customer height of between 5' and 5'8" and a 30 inch service line height, the zone of potential droplet contamination is an area which extends 30 inches by 30 inches from a point 30 inches directly above the customer edge of the service line to a point 30 inches directly in from the customer edge of the service line.
    NOTE: See illustrations in Appendix B.

    Unless otherwise protected as provided by Guideline Nos. 3 and 4, all displayed food within the zone of potential droplet contamination must be protected by a sneeze-guard. This requirement includes the ends of service lines where displayed food is within the zone of potential droplet contamination. Food displayed outside or behind the zone of potential droplet contamination does not require a sneeze-guard. Food intended only for display purposes need not be protected.
  4. Installation and Coverage Requirements for Sneeze-guards.
    In order to conform with this guideline, sneeze-guard systems must meet or exceed NSF standards for coverage and installation. NSF Standard No. 2, Section 4.41.1 provides that "shields [sneeze-guards] shall be mounted so as to intercept a direct line between the customer's mouth and the food display area at the customer "use" position...Special consideration must be given to use location conditions such as tray rails".
         Regardless of design, all sneeze-guards must be installed and adjusted as necessary during operation to maintain constant protection of displayed food items as required by this guideline. The protective area of the sneeze-guard must be positioned high enough above the displayed food so that it does not interfere with the customer's access to the rearmost displayed food item or use of serving utensils.
  5. Movement of Sneeze-Guards; Suspended Sneeze-Guards.
    Regardless of design, sneeze-guards must be installed so as to minimize potential movement of the shields by customers. Sneeze-guards suspended by devices such as chains, ropes, wires, or similar movable suspension equipment must be placed near walls, pillars, posts, or other architectural barriers, or else restrained by chains, straps or similar restraining devices to prevent movement of the sneeze-guards by customers.
  6. Miscellaneous Requirements for Sneeze-Guards.
    1. Sneeze-guards must be kept in a clean and sanitary condition during operation.
    2. Sneeze-guards must be made of easy-to-clean, sanitary materials which conform to NSF Standard No. 2, Section 3. For example, safety glass, plastic, acrylic, and similar materials are acceptable.
    3. Exposed edges of sneeze-guards must have a safety edge or be trimmed with protective edges or channels.
  7. Examples of Acceptable Sneeze-Guard Devices.
    The illustrations in Appendix B are included only as suggestions or examples of acceptable sneeze-guards. The illustrations are not intended to prohibit or prescribe any designs. So long as the sneeze-guard protects the displayed food in accordance with this guideline it is acceptable.

    GUIDELINE NUMBER 3 - DROPLET PROTECTION IN SELF-SERVICE AREAS OF SERVICE LINES
         CURFFL Section 114080(b)(2)(A) requires that unpackaged food displayed in service lines for customer self-service "be shielded so as to intercept a direct line between the customer's mouth and the food being displayed, or shall be in a container which has a tight-fitting, securely attached lid, or may be dispensed form approved mechanical dispensers."
         This means that displayed food must be protected by a sneeze-guard which meets the requirements of Guideline No. 2 or, as an acceptable alternative, placed in a service container which has a tight-fitting securely attached lid.
         Acceptable containers include self-closing containers such as roll-top chafing dishes ("chafers") whose lids are set not to open to more than 90 degrees from their closed position and other containers which the regional FSAC has accepted and/or the local health department has approved as equal to NSF or comparable standards.

    GUIDELINE NUMBER 4 - DROPLET PROTECTION AT ATTENDED STATIONS OF SERVICE LINES
         CURFFL Section 114080(c) provides that unpackaged food may be displayed in other than self-service containers if both of the following conditions are satisfied:
    1. The food is served by an employee of the establishment directly to a consumer.
    2. The food is displayed in clean, sanitary, and covered or otherwise protected containers.

      This standard may be met by either:
      1. Placement of a sneeze-guard which meets the standards of Guideline No. 2 between the food and the customer; or
      2. The attending employee serving the food from a covered container, so long as the cover is replaced after each serving; or
      3. Other protection which provides an equivalent barrier which intercepts a direct line between the mouth of the average consumer and the food. Containers such as roll-top or half-dome chafing dishes meet this requirement provided that when the container is open, only the attending employee directly faces the food.
      Service Line Food Preparation. At cooking stations a sneeze-guard which conforms to Guideline No. 2 must be placed between the customer and food ingredients used to prepare items for other customers. However, sneeze-guards are not required between the customer and the food item being prepared specifically for that customer. This guideline does not apply to tableside food preparation, as defined in "Definitions."

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  8. UTENSILS, FLATWARE, AND DINNERWARE

    GUIDELINE NUMBER 5 - UTENSILS AND SELF-SERVICE DISPENSING OF FOOD ITEMS IN SERVICE LINES
  9. Dispensing Utensils
    CURFFL Section 114080(b)(2)(c) requires that food displayed in self-service containers be provided with a utensil which has a handle sufficient to dispense the food item.
         Each service container must be provided with at least one appropriately sized serving utensil for use exclusively with that container. The utensil must be of sufficient size and design to prevent it falling into or out of the container when not in use. The self-service utensils must be changed, cleaned and sanitized as regularly as necessary.

  10. Dinnerware and Flatware
    All reasonable steps should be taken to keep patrons from reusing their dinnerware (plates, saucers, etc.) when returning to the service line. Therefore, sufficient clean dinnerware should be provided so that customers are not encouraged to reuse their dinnerware when returning to the service line. Suitable facilities should also be available near the service line in which to deposit used dinnerware.
         The management of the retail food establishment should also take special care to provide sufficient utensils, dinnerware and service line supervision to reasonably discourage customers from (1) reusing dinnerware, (2) using their hands or their table flatware to dispense food, or (3) otherwise unnecessarily handing or touching displayed food items.

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  11. SERVICE LINE COOKING

    GUIDELINE NUMBER 6 - VENTILATION
    CURFFL 114140 provides that "ventilation shall be provided to remove gases, odors, steam, heat, grease, vapors or smoke from the food establishment." CCDEH has promulgated ventilation guidelines for the enforcement of CURFFL Section 114140: CCDEH - Recommendations for Mechanical Exhaust Ventilation and Hood Systems of Commercial Food and Utensil Heat Processing Equipment. The CCDEH ventilation guidelines also conform to Uniform Mechanical Code, Chapter 5 (Uniform Mechanical Code) and applicable NSF standards.
  12. General Ventilation Standard.
    In accordance with CURFFL Section 114140 and the CCDEH ventilation guidelines, there must be sufficient ventilation in service lines, and in dining rooms and similar areas where cooking equipment is used to remove gases, odors, steam, heat, grease, vapors or smoke and to prevent the accumulation of these substances on the floors, walls, ceiling and surfaces of these areas of retail rood establishments.

  13. Separate Ventilation - Canopies, Hoods Required for Service Line Cooking Equipment
    Unless exempted in Section C, the CCDEH ventilation guidelines, or specifically approved by the appropriate local regulatory authority, all cooking equipment used in service lines must be separately ventilated in accordance with the CCDEH ventilation guidelines.

  14. Exemptions from Separate Ventilation Requirement
    Certain small individual, portable cooking equipment units which are exempted from canopy and hood ventilation requirements under the CCDEH ventilation guideline and the applicable Uniform Mechanical Code standard may be used without separate or special ventilation. Sufficient area ventilation must be provided to conform with the general ventilation standard of Section A of this guideline.

    Exempted units include but are not limited to the following:
    1. crepe makers
    2. waffle irons
    3. low temperature rotisseries
    4. small hot plates (1.5 kW/5,000 BTU or less)
    This exemption only applies in situations where food is prepared on an individual customer basis.

  15. Use of Plural Units.
    More than one of the individual portable cooking equipment units specified in Section C of this guideline may be used in a service line provided that there is sufficient general area ventilation to conform with the general ventilation standard of Section A of this guideline. The inspecting health officer shall have the discretion to determine whether the use of plural units conforms to the general ventilation standard of Section A.

  16. Fire Safety.
    The regulations of the State Fire Marshall in T19 California Code of Regulations, Section 3.25, contain the following provisions concerning open flame devices:
    Open Flame Devices.
    1. Open flame devices shall be prohibited in every Group A [assembly], E [educational], I [institutional], and D [care facility] Occupancy.
      Exceptions:
      1. Fuel burning elements of approved appliances shall not be considered as open flame devices.
      2. Upon approval of the enforcing agency, open flame devices may be used under the following conditions:
        1. When necessary for ceremonial or theatrical purpose under such restrictions as may be deemed necessary to avoid danger of ignition of combustible materials or injury to occupants.
        2. In approved and stable candle holders on individual tables of dining establishments.
    2. Under no circumstances shall hand held open flame devices such as exposed candles be permitted for any purpose in any occupancy within the scope of these regulations."
      NOTE: Local fire regulations may be more restrictive.

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  17. FLOORS, WALLS AND CEILINGS OF AREAS WITH SERVICE LINES
    GUIDELINE NUMBER 7. - FLOOR SURFACES IN AREAS WITH SERVICE LINES; TEMPORARY COVERING
    CURFFL Section 114150(a) requires that "except in sales areas of retail food establishments...the floor surface in all areas in which food is prepared, packaged, or stored...shall be smooth and of durable construction and nonabsorbent material which is easily cleaned." Under these Guidelines, the term "sales areas" includes dining areas and all areas where buffet service takes place. (See definition of "buffet service").
         Floor surfaces in sales areas with service lines must be easily cleaned, maintained in a clean condition, kept free from debris and otherwise meet the requirements of this guideline.
  18. Employee Side of Temporary Service Line.
    The floor area beneath and adjacent to attend stations shall be such as to be smooth, durable, easily cleaned and maintained so as not to present a slip or trip hazard. This requirement may be met through the application of supplemental flooring which may consist of a mat, carpet-runner or similar temporary floor covering. This area must be kept clean, in good condition, free from debris, and cleaned after each service period.

  19. Customer Side of Service Line.
    Where there is a carpet or other similarly absorbent and permanent floor covering, the inspecting health official may require that a suitable temporary floor covering be placed on the customer side of the service line where there is a significant risk of spillage. This temporary covering may consist of a mat, carpet-runner or similar temporary suitable floor covering. This covering must be kept clean and free from debris, and cleaned after each service period.

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    GUIDELINE NUMBER 8 - WALLS AND CEILINGS
    CURFFL Section 114155 does not require the walls and ceilings of bars and dining areas to be of a smooth, durable and nonabsorbent washable surface. However, under this guideline, the walls and ceilings of bars, dining areas and areas with service lines must be maintained in clean condition and free from debris, dirt and dust.

  20. OVERHEAD PROTECTION

    GUIDELINE NUMBER 9 - OVERHEAD PROTECTION
    Special precautions to protect displayed food from overhead leakage and dirt must be taken in buffet service areas which contain exposed overhead water or sewer lines, exposed architecture, hanging displays of various objects, such as plants, or other decorative or structural features which are not easily cleaned during the normal course of maintenance.