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This is one of several buffet etiquette questions which came up on a recent holiday. When in a buffet queue (line) how should you respond to someone in front of using their hands or a serving spoon meant for (and previously used for another dish) to serve themselves?

This is not in and of itself a health and safety question, though there is the issue of meat spoons used in vegetarian dishes. Rather it is a matter of courtesy as not everyone likes their flavours mixed, or their food handled by others.

Do you confront them with a polite reminder of health issues, or that you don't appreciate them handling the food? Or is it best to ignore it, and just ask staff to provide clean utensils or a fresh "uncontaminated" offering?

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    This may very well be a safety issue when it comes to people with allergies. – Erik Aug 27 '17 at 8:06
  • I won't post as an answer, but I either use a clean fork I bring to the buffet table or use my hands on "dry" items, making sure I don't touch any other foodstuffs with my fingers. Using the provided tongs that numerous others handle (including those who don't wash their hands after using the restroom) is a health hazard and I just can't bring myself to do it. On wet items, I have little choice but to use the spoon (yuck). – anongoodnurse Aug 27 '17 at 12:55
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As someone with dietary restrictions I encounter this problem sometimes. Before trying to explain the problem to someone who might be merely inattentive, I try to correct the immediate problem:

Here, I think this is the right spoon for that (handing over a utensil).

If the person shrugs or says "does it matter?" then I respond with something like:

For those of us with food allergies, yes. I'd like to eat this but I can't eat that, so reusing the spoon is a problem for me.

I've found making it personal to be more effective than making an abstract argument about food safety or allergies. Especially in the US, a lot of what's said about allergies -- like that someone can't be in the same room as an open bag of peanuts -- sounds implausible to some people. Those people might hear "because allergies" as being implausible in that way, where meeting a person who actually has the problem makes more of an impact.

It's important to be brief (you're in a buffet line, after all), to avoid lectures, and to presume good intentions -- act as if the person accidentally used the wrong spoon, not as if he's a thoughtless clod.

If the problem is that the proper utensil isn't available, that's something to take up with the provider. Even well-intentioned people in a buffet line with four pans and two spoons are going to get it wrong, after all -- they've been put in an impossible situation.

Once the person has used the wrong spoon, you might be out of luck for that particular pan of food (depending on how strict you are) and might have to ask the provider for an untainted serving. Your brief conversation with the person is for next time.

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I face this a lot and I will share how do I handle this one.

Do you confront them with a polite reminder of health issues, or that you don't appreciate them handling the food?

Of course, you should confront them because it's a matter of health issues. For those who use hands, I say like,

This dish appears to be tasty and you know other people will also like to take this. Therefore, it's not a good thing to pick this dish with hands. They have provided utensils for this.

You can skip bringing the topic of health issues unless it is necessary, because most people will definitely relate this with health. After saying this, I hand over them that utensil and they use given utensils after this for all dishes.

For those, who use wrong utensils, I say like (almost in the same way above but a bit different),

This dish looks good and using the wrong utensil might make this dish less tasty. So, please use this right utensils. Give them the right utensil

Now coming to another question,

Or is it best to ignore it, and just ask staff to provide clean utensils or a fresh "uncontaminated" offering?

I'd say don't ignore it and ask staff to provide clean utensils. You can also ask them to fresh offering and wait, but other people in the line might not wait. So, just ask them to provide fresh offering quickly in a polite way, like

A wrong utensil has been used for this dish, making me reluctant to take this dish. Please provide fresh offering.

You can try more direct approach if they don't listen to you at first.

I never had case of meat spoons being used in vegetarian dishes, since I am vegetarian and never attended parties where they serve both veg and non-veg dishes. Though you can say like,

This spoon is used in meat dishes and many people who are vegetarian wouldn't like it. This buffet is for everyone, so please mind other people too and use the right spoon.

  • AJ, there is a greater risk (health hazard) using the tongs or spoons, which are heavily contaminated. – anongoodnurse Aug 27 '17 at 13:00
  • Yes, there is especially in rainy season and believe me or not, I suffered from it. That's why I ask for clean utensils and wait for fresh offerings, and sometimes skip that dish. – A J Aug 27 '17 at 13:32
  • Ah, we agree. I usually will just grab a clean fork and try not to cross-contaminate things. – anongoodnurse Aug 27 '17 at 14:58

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