How to Get a Food Handler's Card

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (the CDC) advises that approximately 1 of 6 individuals living in the United States will fall ill by eating food that has been contaminated by a foodborne illness. This equates to almost 50 million Americans who endure an illness each year that has been caused by one of the more than 250 foodborne illnesses identified by CDC researchers. 

As a result, many levels of government and food handling companies and businesses (on an internal basis) have set forth comprehensive food safety regulations to proactively ensure food handlers manage their jobs with food safety as an utmost priority. 

Food safety legislation impacts the four major food-handling steps –

  • Production 
  • Processing 
  • Distribution
  • Preparation 

What is a Food Handler’s Card?

Most states (but, not all) require individuals working with food (in one of the above-mentioned four-step processes) to obtain a Food Handler’s Card prior to beginning employment in a food-related business. The food handler’s card is acquired by successfully passing a government approved food handler’s safety course. The requirements to obtain a food handler’s card depend upon the state in which you work. Generally speaking, a food handler card is required for food handling positions that include - 

  • Caterers.
  • Front line cooks.
  • Chefs.
  • Baristas.
  • Many other culinary related positions.

As mentioned previously, each state sets forth the legal requirements to obtain a food handler’s card for that particular state. However, while each state or locality has the authority to fine-tune food handling regulations, one can expect that most states have the same basic requirements for obtaining this card/certificate. 

Determining if a Food Handler’s Card is required

To determine if you will need a food handler’s credential for a job you are considering, follow the potential solutions noted below:

  • Ask your employer if the open position requires a food handler’s card. . 
  • Call your city/local health division if the requirement is unclear. 

Owners or managers of food establishments are advised to obtain a food handler’s card even if the state authority has no requirement. The reality is that choosing to proactively earn a food handler’s credential reveals a professional commitment and personal initiative

Additionally, it is important to verify if your newly earned food handler’s card is required to be displayed on the business’ premise. If the card must be displayed, it is generally posted in a noticeable place for inspectors to easily view during a routine or an emergency inspection. The local health department is the best place to find and/or confirm this information. 

How to Obtain a Food Handler’s Card.

Those who hold a food handler’s card have demonstrated sufficient knowledge that includes the following:

  • Explain the purpose, objectives, and benefits brought about by the adherence to food safety principles and regulations. 
  • Identify commonplace foodborne issues in real time. 
  • Recognize several types of foodborne contamination.
  • Explain how to properly preserve food.
  • Integrate the principles of time and temperatures to ensure appropriate food handling procedures are followed. 
  • Understand the application of cleaning and sanitizing techniques.
  • Describe the importance of personal hygiene in relation to suitable food handling. 
  • Recognize how to receive and store protein products, i.e. meat or poultry, etc. 
  • Describe how to locate and exterminate pest issues.

The good news is that the process to obtain a food handler’s card is relatively straightforward. The process to obtain a food handler’s card includes the following steps:

Step #1 – The Local Health Department is a valuable resource

Contact your local health department by phone or online to determine the requirements you must meet to obtain a food handler’s card. This can usually be easily accessed through a link on the state’s government website.

Step #2 – Find the Food Handler’s Certificate Program to meet your professional objectives

There are many online food handlers’ certificate programs offered at local community colleges or through distance learning options. Enroll in the course to begin the process required to take the required government-approved examination. 

Step #3 – Remit the tuition costs and exam fees

The tuition costs for each program varies because it is contingent on the school offering the government-approved program, and the state in which you intend to work. Tuition costs for the certificate program typically include the cost to sit for the food handler's examination. Independent of the course, the cost to take the food handler’s government-approved examination typically ranges between $7 and $15, depending on the state in which you take the test. 

Step #4 – Successfully pass the Government-Approved Food Handler’s Examination

Before taking the food handler’s examination, each student must successfully complete the food handler’s certificate program they have chosen in preparation of the exam. Coursework for the food handler’s certificate is usually completed in 1 hour to 1.5 hours, depending on the pace of the student. The curriculum includes the following topics and issues:

  • An inclusive overview of relevant food safety laws and regulations. 
  • An extensive overview of the ways in which food must be handled to avoid contamination. This includes -
    • Food Safety Basics.
    • Personal Hygiene Basics.
    • Time & Temperature Management.
    • How to avoid cross-contamination.
    • Sanitation Basics.
    • Thawing and cooking food correctly.
    • An Understanding of the FDA Food Code. States utilize the FDA's Food Code when formulating their state's food safety rules and regulations. For additional information, check out the FDA’s Food Code Reference System – a database that can be cross-referenced to find the FDA’s interpretations of the Food Code. 
  • The techniques to follow to maintain a food safety professional environment. 
  • Understanding how proper food handling reduces the risk of foodborne illness. 

Upon completion of the coursework, a student becomes eligible to sit for the government-approved food handler’s examination.

Step #5 – Prepare for the Food Handler’s Card Test

Repeatedly practicing the exams provides valuable insight into the test’s format, the timing of the test, and the material on the test where you need additional study time. Each practice test is automatically scored at the end of the exam and provides remedial answers for those questions answered incorrectly.

Step #6 – Taking the Food Handler’s Examination

If you have used the practice tests and study guides to your advantage, you should be ready to sit for, and hopefully, ace the food handler's certification exam. For the most part, if you dedicated the appropriate commitment and time to studying, it is likely you will pass on their first attempt. 

The food handler’s government-approved tests are delivered as multiple-choice exams. When complete, the examination will automatically generate your score; which allows you to instantly know if you passed. It is important to note that passing scores differ from state to state. 

If you have passed the exam, you have the option of printing your food handler’s card at that time, or you can request that the food handler’s card be sent by US post. 

Have a need to take the food handler’s test again?

If you need to re-take the food handler’s exam, the availability of that option depends upon the state in which you took the test. However, many food handlers’ examinations allow test-takers to retake the test again (either once or twice) before requiring an additional fee. The food handler’s certificate program will denote its re-testing policies on the course’s information page. 

Moving to a New State?

It is important to note that many food handlers’ cards/certificates are non-transferrable; which means that when you move to another state, you will be required to take the food handler’s exam issued by the state you are working as a food handler.

However, there are some food handler's government-approved coursework/exams that are officially recognized by every state. It is noted that if you hold this type of food handler's card, you are typically required to register your current credential with the local health authority. Each state determines the requirements regarding this matter, so it is critical to confirm with the local health department to ensure you comply with the law.

Renewing your Food Handler’s Card

Like most government-mandated licenses and certifications, the food handler's card is typically required to be renewed routinely, in accordance with the regulations set forth by the state or local health authority that issued the license. 

Renewal policies are decided by local or state health boards and vary by state. Many initial card renewal dates happen within the first 1 to 5 years. In order to renew your food handler’s card (when required), you are typically required to:

  • Retake the food handler’s course, which is likely updated since you first completed this course. 
  • Retake, and pass the food handler's examination.
  • Remit the appropriate fees for the course and the food handler’s exam. 

NOTE – Make sure that you renew your food handler’s card before your current food handler’s card expires!

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