What is ServSafe?

ServSafe is an educational program that was developed by the National Restaurant Association (NRA). Its main goal is to educate food service workers about food safety. But it’s not just for members of the NRA – anyone can become ServSafe certified.

The average American orders from a restaurant about 200 times a year.

There are about 1 million restaurants who employ about 14 million food service workers in the US.

So a food safety education program is needed to protect the public from foodborne illness.

The National Restaurant Association has over 40,000 members representing nearly 500,000 food service establishments. ServSafe draws on the experience of these members and the recommendations in the United States Food Code for their curriculum. They provide a nationally accredited certificate in food safety that is required by law in many states.

What is ServSafe Certification?

ServSafe certification means that you have sufficient knowledge about food safety to earn one of the certificates awarded by ServSafe. There are four different types of ServSafe certifications:

  • ServSafe Allergen Certification

Earning one of these certificates is a two-step process. First, you have to learn the subject, then you have to pass the exam. Each certificate has its own courses, textbooks, and other materials. Each certificate also has its own exam. Passing their exam is what makes you ServSafe certified. You don’t actually need to use their course materials to become certified. You really only need to pass their exam for ServSafe to consider you as certified. However, some jurisdictions also require proof of training before you are considered certified by your health department.

Many state, county and city governments require food service employees to become certified. Some establishments that serve alcohol are required to have an alcohol certificate. The requirements vary greatly. Some jurisdictions require every employee to have a certificate, while others have no requirements at all. ServSafe is not the only certification program, but they have the most highly regarded certificate in the foodservice industry.

“Food manager” certification is required by most jurisdictions. ServSafe provides the most widely accepted certificate for this requirement. Usually, it is required that at least one certified food manager must be on the staff. Sometimes it’s required that a certified food manager must be present at all times food is being prepared or served. A few jurisdictions require two certified managers to be present at these times. Essentially the food managers duty is to monitor the safety of the food and to train the other employees about good food safety practices.

“Food handler” certification is required by fewer jurisdictions, but when it is required usually all or most of the employees must be certified. ServSafe provides the most widely accepted certificate for this requirement. Typically the employee will have 30 days from the date of hire to obtain a food handler certificate, also called a “food handlers card”. A food handler is usually defined as an employee who has contact with food or food contact surfaces. Depending on the jurisdiction, some employees such as dish room workers or cashiers may not need to be certified.

Who needs ServSafe Certification?

Many state and local governments require food safety certification if food is being served to people who are not friends or family. Especially if it’s outside of a home or if its for sale to the public. The most obvious place that needs food safety certification is a restaurant. But some jurisdictions may even require a church kitchen or a bake sale to be certified.

Your state may not require certification, but if it does here are some examples of places that will probably need it:

Restaurants; catering services; daycare centers that serve prepared food; assisted living centers that serve prepared food; school or work cafeterias; food trucks or carts; food stands; meat processors; convenience stores that sell unpackaged food (like hot dogs or donuts) and bakeries.

Basically, any permanent establishment that prepares cooked food for sale to the public would normally require some type of food safety certification.

Usually, the places that may not need certification are temporary establishments, volunteer/charity organizations or places that only sell prepackaged food. Check with your local health department to learn the specifics in your jurisdiction.

Here are some examples of places that MAY NOT need certification:

Temporary bake sales; grocery or convenience stores with only prepackaged food; soup kitchens for the needy; food shelves with only prepackaged food; vending machines; potluck dinners and temporary events like gatherings with a picnic or cookout.

Basically, any occasional meal that is shared among friends, family or group members does not normally require a food safety certification. Additionally, some jurisdictions provide exemptions for charitable organizations who serve food to the needy.

Why is food safety important?

Foodborne illness has caused countless deaths throughout history and also in modern times. It’s believed that Alexander the Great died from Salmonella typhi poisoning (typhoid fever) after consuming spoiled food. Our 12th president, Zachary Taylor, died after eating a bowl of cherries that were probably contaminated with Salmonella. King Henry I, Rudyard Kipling and Prince Albert all died as a result of foodborne illness as well. Here are some more examples:

  • In 1692 a toxic fungus that causes hallucinations and bizarre behavior contaminated the supply of rye grain in Massachusetts. This resulted in the Salem witch trials.
  • In 1889 more than 20,000 American soldiers contracted typhoid fever from unsanitary cooking methods. Hundreds of soldiers died before it spread to the public where it killed thousands more.
  • Between 1911 and 1922 there were seventy deaths in the US caused by Streptococcus in raw milk.
  • In 1919 canned olives caused a botulism outbreak killing 19 people in three states.
  • In 1924-25 another Salmonella outbreak caused 150 deaths in the US. This time from contaminated milk.
  • In 1985 over 200,000 people were sickened and at least 50 died from listeriosis stemming from contaminated milk.
  • In 1993 four US children died from E. coli poisoning after eating contaminated burgers from Jack in the Box.
  • In 2006 spinach tainted with E. coli sickened 200 people and killed five, across 26 states.
  • In 2008-9 Salmonella strikes again killing 9 and sickening 714 people in 46 states. It was peanut butter this time.
  • In 2011 listeria killed 33 people and caused one miscarriage. Cantaloupes were the carrier.
  • In 2015 there were dozens of outbreaks across the country, causing over 500 people to be sick. Salmonella, Norovirus and E. coli had been linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill. Investigations are ongoing, but some blame a sick employee while others blame corporate sabotage.

The ServSafe program strives to educate workers in the foodservice industry about the causes and consequences of foodborne illness. ServSafe certification helps prevent deaths, illness and the reputation of businesses.