Do I Need a Food Handler’s Permit?


Deciding to start a food related business probably wasn’t an overnight inspiration. It may be a dream you have had for years or something that developed over a period of time. Once you have decided to open your business you have a lot of hoops to jump through, no matter how you got started. One common question is about food handlers’ permits – something many culinary entrepreneurs don’t even know exists.

Who Needs a Food Handler’s Certificate?

Most, if not all, states require that at least one person in a restaurant or market where there is unwrapped foods or food preparation have a food handler’s permit. It is also called a license, certificate, card, or credentials. This permit tells the public, and inspectors, that the holder has had training in basic practices that prevent the spread of food borne illnesses. Employees that need the credentials are often:

  • Bakers/bakery employees
  • Baristas
  • Caterers
  • Cooks
  • Deli/meat counter workers

The requirements are different from place to place and may be one way according to your state and another according to your city regulations. Always abide by the stricter of the two rules when your city and state have different requirements. You can find out what you will need by calling your city manager’s office and talking to someone in the department that handles permits and then double checking with your state.

There are a few states that require people who sell baked goods from their homes to have the certification while others do not. Remember that ignorance of the law doesn’t excuse you from following the law – I didn’t know is not a valid excuse.

Does Every Employee Need One?

Some states want each person that handles food to have the certificate while other states require that only one person have it and assume that he provides training for the other employees. Sometimes that means that at least one person with credentials be on site during working hours and sometimes that means that only one person in the company has to have them. As the owner of the company it is a good idea for both you and your manager to have them even if it’s not required by your state. You’ll be able to ensure that your employees are trained in safe handling techniques whether your manager is at your company or has moved on to another one.

How Do I Get the Permit?

The certificate is given after you have taken an accredited, government approved course and passed the final exam. This isn’t as time consuming as it sounds – it usually only takes a day or so of class.  You can even take the course and exam online in most cases. The permit will need to be renewed regularly, usually every two to five years.

Your local community college may offer classes and testing. Ask questions and make sure the test is one that is accepted by your state. Generally the permits aren’t transferable to another state however the ServSafe certification from the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation is recognized by all 50 states. You can check the site for available classes in your area or take the class and exam online at your own pace. It doesn’t take long – I only spent about four hours to complete the online course at a cost of about $20 for the basic certification.

What If I Don’t Have a Food Handler’s Permit?

You generally get a few weeks of grace before you have to have the permit but once that time is up you can have real problems if you are not complying. There may be stiff fines or you could have your business closed down. If you have been issued a card keep with you at all times and if you are supposed to have a permit it’s a good idea to keep it in a visible spot. It just makes it easier when an inspector shows up.

Educate yourself about all of the regulations that pertain to your business and carefully comply with all of the requirements. This alone will give you a nice head-start to business success.

photo credit: ericmcgregor via photopin cc

- Marye Audet

Marye Audet is an author, freelance writer, and editor. Cooking, baking, and recipe development have been a major part of her life since she baked her first loaf of bread at age 13. Luckily, with a husband, eight children, a son in law, and three grandchildren she has enough test-tasters to handle the steady stream of experiments that come from her kitchen.

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