Food Allergy Food Handler

Food Handler 101: A Guide to Becoming a Food Safety Expert

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Trust20 Contributors • 19 minute read

There are over four million (and counting) food and beverage service positions in the U.S. today.1 The training required for these positions varies dramatically across the country, which can be confusing for job-seekers and foodservice operators alike. However, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimating one in six Americans getting sick from contaminated food/beverages each year, we’re left asking: shouldn’t the food industry be committed to instilling safe food handling practices in every employee, at every level?2

Consequences of a foodborne illness outbreak.

National headlines covering a foodborne illness outbreak originating from a restaurant chain or a recall of romaine lettuce that stems from a localized source are just some nightmare scenarios threatening both a business and its community. The best way to ensure you do your part to prevent foodborne illnesses is to follow safe food handling best practices.

Let’s dig into the step-by-step of everything you need to know about food handler training and why it matters! This article will cover:

Food Handler 101
Food Handler Certificate logistics
What is covered during a Food Handler Certificate training?
Professional development for Food Handlers

Food Handler 101

Ultimately, the goal of food handler training is to protect the community from foodborne illnesses by teaching food industry workers the essentials of food safety. But a lot goes into that!

  1. Who, or what is a food handler?

  2. Who needs a food handler card or certificate?

  3. Do I need to take an accredited course?

  4. Who is the ANSI National Accreditation Board (ANAB)?

  5. What does my food handler certificate mean?

Who, or what, is a food handler?

By definition, a food handler is someone who directly touches food or comes into contact with the surfaces where food preparation takes place. They play an essential role in ensuring food safety throughout the preparation and service process by taking steps to prevent the various types of contamination that can occur along the way. Food handlers directly work with the utensils and equipment used to prepare food. They are responsible for keeping the food preparation area clean, sanitized, and disinfected. Most food handlers in the U.S. are legally required to receive food handler training and demonstrate a basic understanding of food safety and policies.

There are many types of food handlers in the foodservice industry. There are the people packaging food at its source and preparing it for safe delivery to their customers. There are chefs, line cooks, servers, and a whole slew of service workers providing a dining experience to restaurant customers. There are staff at long-term care facilities, dining halls on college campuses, and cafeterias of all kinds. There are industry professionals in many different positions at every step of the food creation, preparation, and serving process–and it is critical to public safety that each and every one of them knows what to do to keep food safe for consumers.

Who needs a food handler card or certificate?

The requirements for food safety training vary immensely because there is not a federal law requiring all food handlers to have a certificate. This means that requirements for food safety training are typically set at the local level via the state, county, and even city health departments. In addition to the legal requirements for training, many employers require their teams to have food handler certificates before they can start a new role in their business.

Oftentimes, when you’re brand new to the foodservice industry, your manager will inform you that you need to get your food handler card. However, if you’re an industry veteran, you probably have already taken food handler training, received a certificate, or even renewed your card more than once. 

People who are line cooks, expos, servers, runners, and any other staff who come into contact with food during the preparation or serving process at a restaurant may need their food handler card. You may also need a food handler certificate if you work at a gas station, grocery store, deli, cafeteria, coffee shop, or in a long-term care facility or hospital.

Keep in mind that a “food handler” and a “food manager” are two entirely different roles. A food handler certificate means you have received training and retained a high-level of food safety best practice information. If you plan to take on any kind of leadership position in the food industry you may need additional training. Many states DO have requirements stating a foodservice establishment must have a Certified Food Protection Manager on-premises during business hours. This means that supervisors, managers, and otherwise designated persons-in-charge should check in with their employer and the local health department to confirm the legal training and certification requirements of their position and business.

Learn more about state-based requirements for training with Trust20’s State Requirements guide.

Do I need to take an accredited course?

It is always in your best interest to take a training or receive a certificate that has been accredited by a trusted governing body. The food handler cards and certificates that are most common, and certainly the most trusted, in the industry have been accredited by the ANSI National Accreditation Board (ANAB). 

Who is the ANSI National Accreditation Board (ANAB)?

The ANSI National Accreditation Board (ANAB), a wholly owned subsidiary of the American National Standards Institute, is a non-governmental organization that provides accreditation services to public-and private-sector organizations.3 They are the largest multi-disciplinary accreditation body in the western hemisphere.

What does my food handler certificate mean?

People who complete an ANAB-accredited food handler training can refer to their achievement as “receiving a food handler certificate, food handler’s card, or food safety certificate.” You did the hard work, and it should be celebrated!

According to ANAB standards, food handler certificate recipients are not allowed to say or imply that you are “certified,” “certificated,” “licensed,” “registered,” or “accredited” by any organization. This by no means minimizes the efforts of your learning! Words like “licensed” and “certified” are loaded terms that often carry A LOT more legal ramifications and responsibilities.

While "certificate" and "certification" may sound like the same thing, there is a big difference between them. Certifications and certificates are required for many positions in the food service industry. However, certifications entail a much higher level of knowledge and often require more training and experience for a particular role.

Food Handler Certificate logistics

At this point you're probably thinking a food handler certificate sounds like a good idea, but you might not know where to start. When you start a new position, your manager will sometimes recommend a specific course for their staff. If you're just getting started, or looking to get a leg up on your job hunt, there are some questions you might need answered. 

  1. When do I need to get my food handler certificate?

  2. Why do I need to renew my food handler certificate? 
  3. Where do I take food handler training?

  4. Why should I get my food handler certificate (even if it isn’t required)?

  5. What should I look for in a good training?

  6. How do I choose the course that is right for me?

When do I need to get my food handler certificate?

Remember that state, county, city, and employer requirements dramatically vary throughout the country. If you are new to the foodservice industry and work in an area where a food handler certificate is required, you typically need to obtain a food handler card before you can start working in or around any food processing, preparation, or service environments.

Food handler certificates are typically valid for three years. This means you do not necessarily need to take a new training for every new job you start while your certificate term is still valid. After a certificate expires, you will need to take a new training course and assessment to receive a new certificate.

You can always contact your local health department if you have specific questions about the rules–that way you can confidently confirm the specific legal requirements for your region.

Why do I need to renew my food handler certificate?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) makes regular updates to the Food Code–typically every two years.4 This means that food safety guidelines and best practices are constantly evolving and food handlers need to be aware of new information soon after it is released. A three-year term helps refresh your knowledge and helps keep all foodservice workers up-to-date on industry best practices.

Where do I take food handler training?

There are learning options available online and in-person. Online courses make it easier for people with busy schedules to fit learning into their lives, however you always want to confirm the local requirements for training with your manager and/or the local authority. There are some jurisdictions that require a specific amount of training time or a course that is hosted by the local health department. Better safe than sorry!

Why should I get my food handler certificate (even if it isn’t required)?

Whether you are new to the foodservice industry or an industry vet, a food handler certificate provides you with critical information that will protect you and your customers from the risk of foodborne illnesses. Being armed with this information will help you feel more confident and prepared for the work you do on a daily basis.

The food safety knowledge that comes from these courses can also help you be seen as a reliable team member who customers can trust and coworkers can lean on–and that can help increase your tips and show your manager that you’re interested in advancing your career.

What should I look for in a good training?

It is always worth it to choose a training provider who has taken the time to seek accreditation for their products. This shows that the materials have been vetted by an outside authority to ensure the training’s learning outcomes are appropriately met in the course and assessment.

You should also keep an eye out for indications that a training provider regularly updates their content. In addition to the periodic updates the FDA makes to the Food Code, the science of food safety is always evolving. A good training should reflect the advances made in the field in order to ensure foods remain safe for people to eat. 

Look around at a provider’s website to see if they note when the course was last updated or if they maintain a resource center with information about current industry best practices. These details are often a sign the training provider has invested in maintaining up-to-date trainings.

How do I choose the course that is right for me?

It may take time and research to decide what course and training provider fits your role best. Before you get started, you’ll want to find out what the food training requirements are in your state and/or local jurisdiction. Your local health department will be able to answer any specific questions. Your manager may also have a recommendation on which course to choose.

You may want to pursue a Food Handler Certificate if you directly handle food and work (or plan to work) in hospitality, delivery services, schools, or food processing facilities. You’ll want to look for a course that covers the basics of food safety–from preparing and storing food properly to personal hygiene in the kitchen and more.

If you’re looking to advance in your career or work with at-risk populations like the elderly or pregnant people, a Food Allergy Certificate might be the right choice for you. As the rate of people with food allergies continues to rise, it will become more important for people in the foodservice industry to understand their risks. Some states already require that managers or persons-in-charge provide their teams with information on major allergens and how to meet the needs of customers with food allergies and intolerances. A food allergy training will give foodservice workers confidence when it comes to dealing with customers with food allergies and how to reduce the risk of a potentially dangerous allergic reaction.

What is covered during a Food Handler Certificate training?

As you’re preparing to take your food handler training, you may want a sneak peek into what you can expect on the learning journey. There are nine topics every comprehensive food safety training should cover, including:

  1. The importance of food safety

  2. How food becomes unsafe

  3. Employee health & personal hygiene

  4. Receiving and storing food

  5. Cross-contamination (and how to prevent it)

  6. Preparing and handling food

  7. Time and temperature control

  8. Cleaning and sanitizing

  9. Pest control

Read on for an overview of each of these important training topics!

The importance of food safety

We’ve already talked about the widespread risks associated with foodborne illnesses, but safe food handling practices go beyond merely preventing sickness. A business’ food safety practices also have serious implications when it comes to working conditions for staff and the reputation of the establishment. There are a lot of misconceptions about food safety and foodborne illnesses and more clarity can only benefit you, your workplace, and your community.

How food becomes unsafe

Remember, the quality and safety of your food can impact the outcome of the customer’s experience and your business's reputation. There are five key ways that food becomes unsafe and these factors should all be taken into consideration when you are delivering, preparing, and serving food. 

The main ways food may become unsafe include:

Employee health and personal hygiene

Anyone who comes into contact with food must be aware of good personal hygiene practices, since harmful pathogens can make their way from an employee’s hands or clothes to food–making it unsafe to eat. 

Employees’ health is as important as their personal hygiene. A sick employee can spread germs to customers and other employees and make food unsafe. If you are feeling under the weather, you should ask yourself, “Am I too sick to work?” Food handler training covers what you need to know when it comes to answering that question.

Receiving and storing food

Keeping food safe for your customers requires proper storage of food. Food handler training will cover how to ensure food quality is maintained during delivery, receipt, and storage before it makes its way to a customer.

Cross-contamination (and how to prevent it)

Food handlers must be knowledgeable about how to prevent cross-contamination and cross contact because it is one of the most common ways food becomes unsafe. Foodservice operations are often fast-paced environments, and workers must stay alert and aware of when there may be an opportunity for cross-contamination in order to prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness.

Preparing and handling food

The ways foodservice workers prepare, handle, and serve their customers are critical to preventing cross-contamination. Some foodservice operations have extensive menus, while others provide very specific meals for their customers or clients. No matter the setting, there are specific procedures food handlers must follow to prevent food safety fails that could result in customer sickness–or full-blown foodborne illness outbreak.

Time and temperature control

If you’ve ever been in the kitchen, you’ve likely heard the phrase “keep hot food hot, and cold food cold.” This refers to the Temperature Danger Zone in which bacteria can grow rapidly and make food unsafe for customers to consume. Whether preparing meals in the kitchen or bringing meals to the tables, it is important for food handlers to be aware of time and temperature controls.

Cleaning and sanitizing

No one wants to eat in a space that doesn’t look clean, but keeping foodservice operations disinfected, clean, and sanitized is more complex than just having a tidy space. Small mistakes can lead to major failures in food safety that can cause customers to get sick and cost your business lots of money.

Pest control

Pests can become a nightmare for a foodservice business and can lead to bad reviews, illness, health department violations, fines, and even closure. All employees need to be aware of ways to prevent pests and how to recognize signs of a pest control issue so that it can be taken care of promptly.

Professional development for Food Handlers

Unlike other fast-paced industries, the foodservice industry does not currently prioritize continuing education or professional development opportunities. Even if you aren’t required to have a food handler card, food handler training is an excellent opportunity to gain more knowledge about your industry and better prepare you for the work that lies ahead.

Whether you’re new to the foodservice industry or a long-term industry professional, there are some questions you should be asking yourself about the benefits of working in foodservice and the trajectory of your career.

They include:

  1. What skills do I need to succeed in foodservice?

  2. What skills from the foodservice industry can help me grow my career?

  3. How do I advance my career in the foodservice industry?

  4. Are there next steps I can take after food handler training?

What skills do I need to succeed in foodservice?

People who succeed in the food industry tend to have exceptional soft skills that can be capitalized on in any career. Multitasking, communication, and teamwork are some of the baseline skills required to work in and around the kitchen–and they make candidates very appealing to hiring managers in any industry.

What skills from the foodservice industry can help me grow my career?

Time management

The face-paced environment of a restaurant requires someone who can manage multiple things at once. This means that effective time management will be valuable to your success. Staying focused, establishing routines, and keeping a well-organized space can help you build and maintain good time management skills.

Attention to detail

The devil is in the details–and overlooking something small could easily cause food to become unsafe. Being aware of your surroundings, where attention to detail will help you excel in any position, whether you are preparing food, serving customers, cleaning dishes, or providing customer service. You will also have an easier time prioritizing your work when you’re a detail-oriented person. Keeping your priorities straight and knowing what tasks to complete first will help you work both quickly and seamlessly, while providing customers with a great experience.


Whether it is remembering the daily specials, the allergies of your patient in room 24C, or the ingredients that need to be ordered, memorization is a critical skill in the foodservice industry. Remembering what ingredients and how much of each one goes into a dish can make (or break) a recipe–or prevent a potentially dangerous situation.

How do I advance my career in the foodservice industry?

The foodservice industry’s fast-paced nature makes for a career full of opportunities. If you want to begin a career in foodservice, you may start with an entry-level position like a host/hostess, busser, or server, then transition to a more experienced position like a shift leader or bartender. If you’ve got an eye on the future, you may be thinking about how to become a manager or how to move into working in the foodservice space of a healthcare or educational setting. 

No matter where you’re going, earning a Food Handler Certificate can show your employer, or future employer, that you take your job seriously. It is always a good idea to communicate your goals with your manager. You set yourself on the path for advancement when you make sure your boss knows you’re interested in taking on more responsibility or moving up with the company.

Are there next steps I can take after food handler training?

Food handler certificates are typically valid for a three year term. After you’ve completed your training, you may want to spend some time focusing on onboarding at your new job and getting comfortable with your responsibilities. If you’re ready to keep learning, you could invest in food allergy awareness training.

Continuing to level up your knowledge can set you apart from other people on your team. Managers and persons-in-charge are typically responsible for training members of their team about the dangers of food allergies, so getting a jump on learning the information can prepare you to better support the people who eventually work for you. Once you’ve decided you want to move into management, the requirements for training become much more strict and you may need to seek out credentials as a Certified Food Protection Manager.

Food Handlers as heroes of food safety

Food handlers are at the center of the foodservice industry, and therefore this role comes with a lot of responsibility. Understanding food safety is essential for every single type of food handling work. Food handlers should undergo training to prevent food from becoming contaminated from improper preparation, storage, or service. Food handler training can be a great starting point for your foodservice career and set you apart in the eyes of your employer, even if it isn’t required where you work.

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  1. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections

  2. CDC: Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases

  3. ANAB: ANSI National Accreditation Board

  4. FDA: 2022 Food Code