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Restaurant Food Handler Certification Guide

Mary Kyle

Credentials for mastering food safety rules and regulations

As the popularity of dining out continues to rise, it’s likely that we'll see a rise in foodborne illnesses. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 48 million people in the U.S. contract a foodborne illness each year. Foodborne illnesses can be quite serious, resulting in hospitalization and in some cases death. It takes a highly skilled staff to prepare and serve raw, unpackaged foods in a responsible manner that recognizes, responds to and prevents potential food-related health hazards from reaching the consumer. The CDC reports that only 20 percent of foodborne diseases are caused by known pathogens, leaving most foodborne illnesses caused by unknown pathogens and agents.

Almost 15 million people (about 10 percent of the workforce) are employed in positions of preparing and serving food and beverages to consumers. To protect consumers, it's imperative that dining and beverage establishments employ food service professionals who have been trained in food handling and serving best practices, as well as recognizing and preventing food-related health hazards.

One way dining and beverage establishments can protect consumers is to not only comply with all state, local and federal regulations but to implement training programs to ensure their food service professionals are prepared to meet the challenges of the food service industry. In addition to protecting the public, getting certified helps you maintain a solid relationship with customers and a positive brand reputation. Several organizations provide training specifically for a career in the food service industry.  


The National Restaurant Association's (NRA) ServSafe has been a leader in restaurant and food service education since 1919. ServSafe credentials are nationally recognized by more licensing and regulatory agencies (local, state and federal) than other food service certifications. ServSafe offers four credentials: 

  • ServSafe Food Protection Manager: Focused on food service industry managers, this certification is nationally recognized and accredited by the American National Standards Institute and the Conference for Food Protection (ANSI-CFP). The course covers basic food handling and safety topics along with managerial topics such as employee training and food safety management systems.  
  • ServSafe Food Handler: This certification targets professionals who are required to obtain a food handler card in their state to serve, store or prepare food. The course covers five primary areas affecting food handlers: food safety, personal hygiene, time and temperature, cleaning and sanitation, and cross-contamination and allergens. In addition, food service professionals learn about risk management (food service industry and sanitation) issues, best practices for food safety, and the FDA Food Code.
  • ServSafe Alcohol: Training materials for alcohol service professionals focus on topics such as regulatory requirements, alcohol service risks, managing alcohol-related escalations, and best practices for alcohol service. Some states have different requirements and training may not be available for all states. Candidates located in Louisiana need to ensure that they purchase the textbook specifically formulated to accommodate Louisiana law.  
  • ServSafe Allergens: This credential prepares food service industry professionals to assist guests and customers with food allergies. Course topics include guest communications, interpreting food labels, allergen identification and preventing cross-contamination. 

Not all ServSafe courses are recognized or available in every locality, and training materials may vary depending on the state where certification is sought. ServSafe recommends all candidates be familiar with their local regulatory requirements when selecting a course to ensure it meets their requirements.

The Food Protection Manager credential is valid for five years, while the Food Handler and Alcohol credentials are valid for three years, after which candidates must recertify with the NRA. Some state and local regulatory agencies have different validity periods, so it's important to know the requirements in your area and recertify at the earliest date.   


Created by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF), the ManageFirst Program is designed to provide individuals with the skills to succeed in management roles in the restaurant and food service industry.    

  • ManageFirst Professional (MFP): Designed for maximum flexibility, ManageFirst courses may be taught in industry or formal academic settings. The ManageFirst Program consists of four Core Credential topics plus eight elective topics. The Core Credential topics are Controlling Food Service Cost, Hospitality and Restaurant Management, Hospitality Human Resources Management and Supervision, and ServSafe Food Safety and Sanitation. Elective topics cover a variety of related subject areas such as marketing, beverage management and customer service, so candidates can choose the topics that most closely align with their career goals. Candidates earn a certificate for each topic exam they complete. To earn the MFP certification, candidates must pass all four of the Core Credential topic exams plus one elective exam, and complete 800 documented hours (paid or unpaid) of direct food service industry work experience.
  • Food Service Management Professional (FMP): A senior-level designation, this credential targets leader in the food service and restaurant industry. To earn the credential, candidates must have a minimum of three years' supervisory experience in a food service or restaurant setting (only two years' experience is required for candidates with an associate's degree or higher) and a Food Protection Manager Certification or equivalent credential, which they must have obtained within five years before application. They also must complete the FMP application, submit the $150 application fee and pass the FMP exam. Candidates may not sit for the exam until the application has been approved.

National Registry of Food Safety Professionals 

The National Registry of Food Safety Professionals (NRFSP) is a globally recognized organization that provides food service industry examinations, standards and best practices. NRFSP offers two food services credentials, the Food Safety Manager Certification and a food handler certification. It also offers credentials targeting grocery food managers, convenience store managers and HACCP food safety managers. 

  • Food Safety Manager Certification: A credential for entry-level food managers, the Food Safety Manager Certification is accredited by ANSI-CFP. The exam covers topics such as food safety management, supervisory duties, FDA regulations, health and other inspections, and risk. The credential meets the regulatory requirements for all states except Ohio and Illinois. The credential is valid for five years.
  • First Principles Food Handler certificate: Food Safety First Principles for Food Handlers is a certificate program designed to ensure food handlers have the skills to handle, serve, prepare and display food. Accredited by ANSI against the ASTM standards for California, Illinois, Texas and Arizona, the program covers topics such as food safety, contamination and cross-contamination, time and temperature controls, personal hygiene, and cleaning and sanitizing. To earn the certificate, candidates must complete the training course and pass the exam.


Learn2Serve, a leading national certifications provider, offers state-specific training courses for hospitality industry professionals. Food safety management and alcohol seller and server training are staples of the Learn2Serve portfolio.

  • Food Safety Manager (FSM): Designed for food managers, this credential focuses on prevention and causes of foodborne illnesses, contamination, personal hygiene, sanitation, facility design, and food safety best practices.
  • Food Handler Certificate: The Food Handler Certificate targets anyone who handles unpackaged food or equipment, surfaces or utensils that are exposed to unpackaged foods.
  • Alcohol Seller Certification: This certificate prepares food, beverage and hospitality professionals to serve or sell alcoholic beverages in a manner consistent with their state and local regulatory requirements.

National Environmental Health Association

Since 1937, the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) has provided nationally recognized food safety training in both the public and private sectors.

  • Certified Professional Food Safety credential: Designed for experienced food safety practitioners, the CP-FS credential validates knowledge of regulatory requirements, HACCP principles, food safety, food microbiology, foodborne illnesses, effective sanitation and emergency responses. Credential holders can conduct facility plan reviews or serve in roles such as quality control or quality assurance managers. To earn the credential, candidates must meet stringent education and work experience guidelines and submit a formal application along with application fees. Upon application acceptance, candidates must pass the CP-FS exam.
  • Certified Professional Food Manager: This credential targets food management professionals in the hospitality and culinary industries and prepares them to manage food safety risks and employ best food safety practices in the workplace. The exam covers food safety best practices, the FDA Food Code, food safety management, contaminant identification and avoidance, reportable disease, inspections, sanitization, and more. A single ANSI-CFP-approved exam is required to earn the credential.  

American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute 

The American Hotel & Lodging Education Institute (AHLEI) has been a leading provider of hospitality-related education since 1953. Its training courses and certifications are recognized globally, with licensed training affiliates in 45 countries. Its Certified Restaurant Server credential targets food service professionals with front-line positions in dining facilities. To earn the credential, candidates must complete the START or quickSTART course and pass the Restaurant Server exam (70 percent or higher).

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Mary Kyle Contributing Writer
Self-motivated, results-oriented project management professional with successful track record in the areas of project and program management, leadership, customer relationships and negotiation with a reputation for meeting challenging organizational goals and objectives. Proven ability to build, motivate and lead collocated, virtual and international teams to achieve maximum productivity and exceed customer expectations. Highly effective communication, presentation, planning and coaching skills. Detail oriented with excellent organizational, problem solving and risk management skills.