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How to get a food handling license: State-by-state guide

Whether you’ve just put the finishing touches on your brand new food truck or are only beginning the process of lining up the necessary restaurant insurance coverage for your dream gastropub, you might be wondering how to make an opening week (and beyond) go as smoothly as possible for your restaurant.

Beyond slick restaurant marketing plans and solid hiring decisions—which are essential—you must train your restaurant workers in food safety protocols. Proper training will help keep you in good graces with the state, local government, and the general public, protecting your small business’s reputation and protecting the health of your customers. (Positive Yelp reviews never hurt, either.)

Getting food handling licenses is a vital step in the success of your business, but knowing the how, when, and where of getting one differs from state to state (and even city to city). We'll break down the process for you below.

What is a food handling license, and does my business need one?

A food handling license (also called a permit or card) serves as proof that your kitchen staff has undergone training in basic food safety measures, including preventing foodborne illness and preparing and storing unpackaged food safely. After completing an accredited food safety class and passing the subsequent exam, an employee earns their card.

There are 2 food-handling licensing levels: Food handler's cards and food safety management certification. Depending on the state and city you live in, you might be legally required to get both kinds of food handler training for your staff.

Overwhelmingly, states require at least one supervisor (or "person in charge") to become a certified food safety manager (CFSM). This training is more in-depth and slightly more expensive.

What are the food handling requirements?

Food handling classes cover everything from how to properly cool and heat certain dishes to:

  • Allergens
  • Proper handwashing
  • How to prevent cross-contamination
  • How to safely store chemicals and cleaning products

and so much more. Clearly, the training is essential to keeping your food establishment safe, tidy, and always ready for a health inspection.

Who needs a food handler’s card?

Generally, anyone who comes into contact with food or food contact surfaces—chefs, waitstaff, bartenders, head cooks, food runners, hostesses, even dishwashers in some states—will need a food handler’s license.

This will depend on your state and local health department's specific requirements. With that said—it's always a good idea to get thorough food safety training for your restaurant workers.

Of course, there are exceptions. Usually, food vendors who sell pre-packaged food and volunteer waitstaff won't need food handler permits, but read up on your local laws—just in case.

Getting a food handling license: What every business owner needs to do

Follow these steps to get a food handler’s permit:

Check your state and local government laws

You never want to fail an inspection because of a regulation you might have missed—like in Texas, where you must always keep your staff's food handler's licenses on site.

Purchase any classes necessary

Some states, like Hawaii, make all food safety classes free of charge. Others require relatively expensive food manager classes—from $85 and up. Usually, you can find affordable online training and in-person options on each state health department's website. Education providers like ServSafe and StateFoodSafety offer classes in Spanish and several other languages.

The important thing is that the class and exam you purchase are accredited, either by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) or the Conference for Food Protection (CFP).

Pass the final exam with a 75% score

Some states require as high a score as 90%, so it's best to study up!

Renew when necessary

Food handler's licenses are good for 2 to 3 years, depending on where you live. Food safety manager certifications usually last 5 years.

How long does it take to get a food handlers card?

In some states, your employees won't have to take a class—only the exam. Others require 8 hours of training. So, there is quite a range in what could be legally required. Usually, though, a short class followed by an exam is enough to earn a food handler's card.

State-by-state food handling license requirements

As you can see, a lot depends on your restaurant's location! Below, we break down how to get food handler’s permits depending on your state.

1. Alabama

If your restaurant is located in Jefferson County or Mobile County, all your food service employees must have a food handler's license. If you're set up elsewhere, only one of your managers must complete a food manager training course and pass an accredited food safety certification test.

2. Alaska

Your Alaska food service employees must earn a "food worker card" within 30 days of being hired. They'll need to take an exam online or in-person through the Alaska Department of Health unless your restaurant is located in Anchorage. In which case, they'll need to work with the Anchorage local government to get a food worker card within three weeks of being hired.

3. Arizona

Each county in the state is allowed to have its unique regulations for food handler's licenses. So, check your local government website for their specific food handler's permit requirements.

4. Arkansas

The Arkansas Department of Health advises restaurants to train their staff in food safety best practices, but only one of your supervisors must pass an accredited food manager training program. For more Arkansas food safety FAQs, head to the Department of Health's website.

5. California

Most of California's 58 counties require food service workers to obtain a California Food Handler Card (AKA a CFH Card) within 30 days of being hired. Suitable for three years, this card is earned by passing an ANSI-accredited food safety training program. However, if your restaurant is set up in San Bernardino, San Diego, or Riverside counties, a CFH card isn't recognized there. You'll need to work with your local health department and learn their specific requirements for getting a food handler's license.

6. Colorado

Whether or not your food service employees get a food handler's permit is entirely up to you, the restaurant owner—there is no state requirement. Note: You are required to have one of your managers pass an ANSI-accredited food protection manager program.

7. Connecticut

At least one of your restaurant's managers, owners, or supervisors must pass a specialized test to become a Qualified Food Operator—otherwise known as a QFO.

8. Delaware

Restaurant owners are only required to have one of their supervisors become a food protection manager. For a list of approved programs and further information, head to Delaware's public health web page.

9. Florida

Any restaurant supervisors must become certified food managers, and any other restaurant employees must earn their food handler license by passing a food safety program. Visit the Florida Department of Health's website to get the appropriate training manuals, applications, and other food code resources.

10. Georgia

According to state law, every restaurant must have a Certified Food Protection Manager (CFPM) on-site at all times. This means your person-in-charge will complete an accredited food protection manager program. Make sure it's one rubber-stamped by the Georgia Department of Agriculture and Food Safety.

11. Hawaii

You don't need to worry about the cost of a food safety certification class in Hawaii—all such courses are free and provided through the Hawaii Department of Health. Ensure at least one person on each shift has food safety certification through an accredited program.

12. Idaho

Although the state only requires restaurants to have one Certified Food Protection Manager (CFPM) on-site, they recommend all other employees pass the Idaho Food Safety Exam to earn a certificate of completion. This certification is optional and good for five years.

13. Illinois

Any of your employees who might contact food will need to get a food handler's permit. Check out a list of approved classes (one option costing as low as $15) at the Illinois Department of Public Health's website.

14. Indiana

At least one of your restaurant employees will need to become a Certified Food Protection Manager (CFPM) by passing an approved food safety exam. Taking a course before the exam isn't necessary but might be beneficial.

15. Iowa

The person in charge of "directing and controlling food preparation and service at the food establishment" must pass a food safety test through an accredited and approved food safety training program. The rest of your employees aren't required to have a food handler's license.

16. Kansas

Kansas has no statewide law on food handler's permits, but certain municipalities do. So, check your local government website for their particular requirements.

17. Kentucky

As with a few other states, Kentucky leaves it up to individual counties to decide their food handling laws. So, check with your local health department to make sure you're meeting their requirements.

18. Louisiana

One of your restaurant workers must become a certified food safety manager by completing an 8-hour-long food safety course and passing an exam through an accredited program. For information on approved classes and how to get the official state certificate, head to the Louisiana Department of Health's website.

19. Maine

At least one restaurant owner or supervisor must earn a food manager's certification through a state-approved, accredited program. They should renew this certification every five years. There is no requirement for your other employees to get food handlers' permits.

20. Maryland

The standards for food safety training vary depending on your restaurant's location. So, contact your local health department to ensure you're not missing any crucial requirements.

21. Massachusetts

You must have one "person-in-charge" trained as a food safety manager for every restaurant you own. This person needs to be at least 18-year-old and must teach a "backup person" in food safety protocols who can cover for the safety manager when they're off the clock. For more information on food manager program options, check out Boston's suggested list. Fees for food manager classes vary.

22. Michigan

While the state requires you to have at least one food safety manager per restaurant, this employee doesn't need to take classes (unless they want to). They only need to pass an accredited training exam. They will need to renew this certification every five years.

23. Minnesota

Like many states, Minnesota requires every food establishment to have one employee certified as a food safety manager. Food safety managers must renew their education every three years with a four-hour training session. The initial certificate costs $35, in addition to required classes and exams.

24. Mississippi

Not all kitchen workers in Mississippi need to get food safety licenses. Still, one of your full-time employees must pass an accredited food safety manager exam and train their coworkers in best practices. The cost differs from program to program.

25. Missouri

The state has no requirements for food handler's licenses, but keep in mind that you'll need to double-check the local laws. Missouri counties can set their regulations for food handler certifications and training. Contact your local health department for further information.

26. Montana

You need one Certified Food Protection Manager on staff. They need to pass an accredited exam (either ANSI or CFP are fine) and help train their coworkers in safety protocols.

27. Nebraska

Nebraska leaves it up to individual counties to decide whether food handlers' permits or food manager certifications are required. Be sure to contact your county's health department to meet their requirements.

28. Nevada

State law says that you must have at least one employee pass an accredited test to be a Certified Food Protection Manager (CFPM), and they must be on-site while the business is open. Keep in mind that different municipalities may have additional regulations, so confirm your local laws.

29. New Hampshire

New Hampshire has 15 "self-inspecting" counties, which means they can decide their certifications and permit requirements. Make sure you're up-to-date on all required permits unique to your county.

30. New Jersey

The state requires food establishments to have a Certified Food Protection Manager on staff by passing an accredited exam. All the rest of your team may need food handler's licenses, too, depending on the county your restaurant is in. Look up your local health department's requirements to be sure.

31. New Mexico

According to New Mexico law, all employees who contact food or food-related items and surfaces must get a food handler's license. Additionally, each restaurant must have a supervisor who is a Certified Food Protection Manager (CFPM). Prospective food workers must pass the appropriate tests with accredited food safety programs. There are several exemptions to these requirements, so double-check the New Mexico Environment Department's website for additional details.

32. New York

The requirements for New York State depend on your specific location. For example, if you're located in NYC, your employees will need to complete a free online food protection course. Check out the New York Department of Health's guide to find information for your specific district.

33. North Carolina

You'll need to ensure at least one of the people in charge of your restaurant becomes a Certified Food Protection Manager. They'll need to pass an exam through an accredited program. Cost varies from program to program. The rest of your staff are not legally required to get food handlers' permits, but training programs are still available.

34. North Dakota

Some towns and counties in North Dakota require food handler's licenses for all employees and at least one employee to be trained as a Certified Food Safety Manager. Some don't. Check your local health department website for their specific requirements.

35. Ohio

Ohio requires two levels of employee training for each food establishment: Level One, which is special training for a person in charge of each shift, and Level Two, which is more in-depth training for managers. Each county could have different requirements, so contact your closest health department for further guidance.

36. Oklahoma

Whether your restaurant employees need food handler's licenses or food manager training depends on which city you're in—so check with your nearest health authority regarding their requirements for licensing, education, and certification.

37. Oregon

Restaurant employees must get a food handlers' license within 30 days of being hired. This permit needs to be renewed every three years and only costs 10 dollars. Head to the Oregon Health Authority's website for a full rundown of all the classes and papers that might need to be filed.

38. Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, at least one of your restaurant employees will function as the "person-in-charge" for every shift and must pass an accredited food manager exam. According to state law, other food workers don't have to get food handler's licenses but check with your county if they have special rules you must follow.

39. Rhode Island

Every food establishment indeed needs to have one supervisor who has passed an 8-hour food management program—but you must have two certified food safety managers on staff if you have more than 10 employees. These certifications are suitable for three years and must be accompanied by a written food safety plan for each food establishment.

40. South Carolina

Your food establishment must have one Certified Food Protection Manager who has passed a CFP/ANSI-accredited course. Your other employees are not required to get food handler's licenses, although they should be trained in best practices by the food safety manager.

41. South Dakota

Your food service staff isn't required by law to get food handler's licenses, but at least one manager needs to be a certified food service manager. They should pass an approved course with a 75% or greater score. The cost depends on which class you choose.

42. Tennessee

While Tennessee generally requires that each restaurant have a certified food protection manager as the "person-in-charge," there are certain exceptions. For example: If your supervisor can satisfactorily answer food safety questions, then they might not have to pass a CPF-accredited exam.

43. Texas

In Texas, every food service employee (whether part-time or full-time) must get a food handler's card by completing an accredited food safety course. Likewise, each establishment must have a supervisor trained as a food safety manager. The food safety manager must pass an accredited course to receive certification suitable for 5 years.

44. Utah

In Utah, all food service workers involved in prepping, serving, or handling food must have a food handler's license. They must take an approved food safety course and pass its accompanying exam to receive a certificate, which they should then send to their local health department as proof of their training. The license is suitable for three years.

45. Vermont

In Vermont, the only requirement is that each restaurant has a supervisor who has passed an accredited food protection manager exam. Alternatively, the "person in charge" at your restaurant might skip the exam as long as they exhibit knowledge of food safety protocols when questioned by an inspector. Such protocols include appropriate food storage and temperatures, proper handwashing, etc.

46. Virginia

According to state law, all food establishments must employ a manager who's gone through an accredited food management safety program. Depending on your location, your other restaurant workers might need food handler's licenses. Touch base with your nearest health authority to determine their current preferences for food safety licenses.

47. Washington

All employees who handle and serve food in Washington must have a food handler's card. They can earn a food service card by passing a food safety class offered through your local health department, whether online or in-person. These cards are good for two years.

48. West Virginia

In West Virginia, there are no wide-reaching state laws about food handler's cards. Certain municipalities have different rules about food safety training, some even requiring food handler's cards, so do check your local health department's website for their guidelines.

49. Wisconsin

The state does not require restaurant employees to get food handler's licenses; however, each food service establishment must have one certified food safety manager. This manager may take an accredited food safety course approved by Wisconsin's Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection.

50. Wyoming

Wyoming state law does not require food service workers to have food handler's permits, but it does need each food establishment to have a certified food protection manager. Contact your closest health department for their specific requirements for classes and certification.

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