ServSafe Certification

What is ServSafe?

ServSafe is an educational program that was developed by the National Restaurant Association (NRA). It’s 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. 

ServSafe estimates that the average American purchases about 200 restaurant meals every year. They also estimate that nearly 1 million restaurants in the US employ almost 14 million food service workers. 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 their certificates. There are four different ServSafe certificates:

ServSafe Food Manager

ServSafe Food Handler

ServSafe Alcohol

ServSafe Allergens

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 food service industry.

Food manager certification is required by the 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.

Try our free ServSafe MANAGER Practice Test

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.

Try our free ServSafe HANDLER Practice Test


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 food; assisted living centers that serve food; school or work cafeterias; food trucks or carts; food stands; meat processors; convenience stores that sell cooked food (like hot dogs) and bakeries. Basically any permanent place that sells prepared food.

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.

Why is ServSafe Certification Important?

Every year on average, one in six Americans will become ill due to foodborne illness. And of those, 128,000 will be hospitalized and 3,000 will die. The situation is worse in developing countries.

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 58 died. Of those deaths, 10 of them were newborn babies and 20 were miscarriages. The cause was cheese contaminated with listeriosis The cheese was made with unpasteurized milk.

In 1993 four US children died and hundreds more were sickened from E. coli poisoning after eating contaminated burgers from Jack in the Box. This caused nationwide panic and the fast-food chain was nearly bankrupted.

In 1998-99 it was listeria again but this time in hotdogs. One hundred people fell ill in 24 states. Eighteen of them died, 4 of which were miscarriages.

Again, in 2002 turkey meat infected with listeria killed 7 adults and cause 3 stillbirths even though Pilgrims Pride Co. recalled nearly 14,000 TONS of deli meats.

In 2003 hepatitis A was discovered in salsa at Chi-Chi’s Restaurant. Three people died and 555 people contracted the incurable disease. All locations of the restaurant chain are now permanently closed.

In 2006 spinach tainted with E. coli sickened 205 people, killed five, and caused 21 cases of kidney failure across 26 states.

In 2008-9 Salmonella strikes again killing 9 and sickening 714 people in 46 states. It was peanut butter this time. The Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) was responsible. After massive recalls, the company eventually went bankrupt.

In 2011 listeria killed 33 people and caused one miscarriage. Cantaloupes were the carrier.

Also in 2011, Cargill Corporation was forced to recall 18,000 TONS of ground turkey because an antibiotic-resistant strain of Salmonella was discovered in the processing equipment. Despite the huge recall, 136 people suffered from illness and one died across 34 states. It could have been much worse.

In 2015 cucumbers imported from Mexico caused 907 cases of Salmonella poisoning across 40 states. More than 200 people were hospitalized and 6 died.

Also in 2015 Salmonella, Norovirus and E. coli had been linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill. Fifty-five people in 11 states were sickened and 22 were hospitalized, but there were no deaths. Investigations are ongoing, but some blame a sick employee while others blame corporate sabotage.

The Efforts of ServSafe

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 restaurants.