ServSafe Food Handler Study Guide for the ServSafe

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The ServSafe Food Handler Test is designed to assess food safety knowledge of employees in a food service environment. It tests basic knowledge required of food handlers who are not in a management position.

The test is made up of 40 questions and is not timed. To pass and earn your food handler certification, you must achieve a score of 75% or better. This means you’ll need to answer 30 of the 40 questions correctly.

Below is an outline of the topics covered on this test and the information you’ll need to study and know about them. Be sure to supplement your review of this study guide by trying our Practice Questions for the ServSafe Food Handler Test and our Flashcards related to it that pertain to food-handling skills.

Basic Food Safety

There are many ways foods can become unsafe, resulting in contamination that could lead to a foodborne illness which negatively impacts foodservice establishments. It is the food handlers’ responsibility to keep customers safe by understanding and identifying potential causes of contamination.

Causes of Unsafe Food

A safe food handler understands that food may become unsafe due to their own actions, which could result in foodborne illness. Foodborne illness happens when a disease is passed to customers through food. Safe food handling and a safe preparation environment are key in minimizing this risk.

The Environment

Food can become unsafe by coming into contact with contaminated people, materials, or surfaces. These are known as environmental hazards and are broken into three categories: biological, chemical, and physical. Contamination and foodborne illness can be prevented when food handlers properly identify these environmental hazards and how they may occur.

Biological Contaminants

These are microscopic contaminants, including bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi that you may not be aware of. They are everywhere and sometimes harmless, but some result in foodborne illness. These are known as pathogens.

Chemical Contaminants

These are chemicals used at your establishment, including cleaners, sanitizers, and polishes that may come in contact with food.

Physical Contaminants

These may be naturally occurring or objects that have fallen into food. Bones, pits, and seeds are naturally occurring. Metal shavings, staples, dirt, glass, paper, bandages, and jewelry are examples of contaminants that could fall into foods.


Food handlers can make foods unsafe with their actions, resulting in foodborne illness outbreaks and an unsanitary work environment. Food handlers are involved in every step of food handling and preparation, giving them many opportunities to contaminate foods.

Neglecting Personal Hygiene

Poor personal hygiene, like sneezing into your hand and passing pathogens from your hand to the food, is the top cause of foodborne illness outbreaks.

Ignoring Time and Temperature Guidelines

When foods sit out too long or are stored at the wrong temperature, pathogens grow exponentially.

Cross-Contamination on Surfaces

Working on dirty surfaces or with contaminated cutting boards or other equipment can pass pathogens to food.

Failing to Clean and Sanitize Properly

Equipment or surfaces that aren’t cleaned and sanitized could pass lingering pathogens to food.

How People Can Help Keep Food Safe

The food handler is the first line of defense in keeping foods safe. Understanding and identifying hazards is only the beginning. A safe food handler must prevent the hazards mentioned above. It is crucial to follow simple practices that will ensure a safe food preparation environment.

Maintain Good Personal Hygiene

Practicing good personal hygiene helps ensure pathogens are not passed from food handler to food.

Use Safe Time and Temperature Guidelines

Understanding how time and temperature affect food helps control food safety. Letting food sit out too long at a temperature that promotes dangerous pathogen growth makes food unsafe.

Block Cross-Contamination

When food handlers pass pathogens from one work surface to another, or from one food item to another, this is known as cross-contamination.

Maintain Clean Surfaces

Proper cleaning and sanitizing of work surfaces, equipment, utensils, and anything that comes in contact with food helps keep food safe.

It is the food handler’s responsibility to maintain good hygiene, understand time and temperature guidelines, understand cross-contamination, and maintain a clean work environment. Each of these topics require specific and thorough practices to ensure food safety.

Personal Hygiene

Good hygiene includes understanding the proper length of fingernails, correct use of gloves, and what should and should not be worn at work, as well as proper handwashing procedures, where to eat and drink while at work, and when to report symptoms of illness to your boss.


Anyone working in a foodservice establishment will handle food or drink during a shift. Proper handwashing is the best way to ensure pathogens are not passed from employee to customer.

Handwashing Procedure

Washing your hands for 20 seconds is the easiest way to keep foods and surfaces contamination free. Food handlers must:

  1. Dampen hands and arms under hot running water (as hot as can be tolerated).
  2. Apply enough soap to work into a rich lather.
  3. Lather hands and arms, between fingers, and under fingernails for 10 to 15 seconds. (The entire handwashing process should take a minimum of 20 seconds.)
  4. Rinse hands and arms well under hot running water.
  5. Dry hands and arms with a paper towel or hand dryer and never on an apron, part of a uniform, or clothing.

Then, use a paper towel to turn off the tap and to open the bathroom door so as not to contaminate hands on the way back to work.

When to Wash Your Hands

Wash hands before work, after using the bathroom, and after any of the following:

  • Touching your hair, face, body, clothing, or aprons
  • Before and after touching raw meat, poultry, or seafood
  • Taking out the trash
  • Sneezing, coughing, or tissue use
  • Using chemicals
  • Smoking, chewing gum, or using tobacco
  • Busing dirty tables
  • Eating or drinking
  • Touching money
  • Going in or out of the kitchen
  • Touching service animals or aquatic animals, like lobsters from a tank
  • Touching dirty enquipment, work surfaces, clothes, or anything that might contaminate hands

Always wash hands before beginning a new task, or before putting on gloves.

Hand Cleaning Products and Supplies

Some establishments may include further steps to ensure pathogens are not passed from food handler to customers, such as hand sanitizers.

Hand Sanitizers

Do not use hand sanitizer as a replacement for handwashing. Only use hand sanitizer after handwashing. Wait for sanitizers to dry before touching anything in the kitchen and before putting on gloves. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for using the sanitizer.

Handwashing Sink Supplies

Handwashing is designated to its own sink, which should have hot and cold running water, soap, single-use paper towels or a hand dryer, and a garbage can. Inform your manager if any of these are missing.

Where to Wash Your Hands

Food service establishments must have a designated handwashing sink with fully stocked supplies and should be used according to proper procedure.

  • Never wash hands in sinks used for other tasks.
  • Never use handwashing sinks to dump used water, prep food, fill containers, or wash dishes.
  • Handwashing sinks should always be accessible and never blocked by food, equipment, or kitchen supplies.

Other Hand Concerns

Beyond handwashing, safe food handlers must also understand how to properly use gloves and how to keep hands and fingernails hygienic.

Using Gloves

Gloves are never a replacement for handwashing and should be used properly. Never touch ready-to-eat foods (a food that can be eaten without further prep, washing, or cooking, such as sandwiches or salads) with bare hands. You could pass pathogens and contaminate the food.

  • Only use disposable gloves that fit your hand (not too tight or too loose).
  • Never blow into or roll gloves when putting them on.
  • Never rinse, wash, or reuse gloves.
  • Always wash hands before using gloves or when you begin a new task.

Hand Care

Food handlers should keep hands and fingernails clean and well groomed.

Fingernail care— Nails should be short, filed, and clean. Long or ragged nails can be hard to keep clean and may harbor pathogens.

Nail polish and false fingernailsNever wear nail polish because it could flake into food and cause physical contamination, or hide dirt that may be under nails. Never wear false nails, which are also hard to keep clean and may fall off, causing physical contamination. (Some establishments may allow polish or false nails to be covered with gloves. Check with your manager.)

Wounds on hands— Wounds can contain pathogens. Cover hand or wrist wounds with a tight bandage or finger cot and a disposable glove. Completely cover arm wounds with a tight, clean bandage to prevent leakage. Cover body wounds with a dry, durable, tight fitting bandage.

Wearing Appropriate Attire

Good hygiene includes wearing clean clothes to work and bathing daily to project a positive and professional image. Dirty skin, hair, and clothing could harbor pathogens that can lead to foodborne illness. Food handlers must adhere to guidelines for covering hair, wearing clean clothing, using aprons, and wearing jewelry.

Hair Covering

Clean hair must be covered while working with food, when in food prep areas, and when working in dish rooms where items are being cleaned. Hair should be restrained with a clean hat or hair covering. Beards should be covered with a beard guard.


Clothes should be clean, including uniforms, chef coats, and aprons. If these dirty items must be stored at the establishment, they should be kept away from the kitchen and food prep areas. Your own clothes should also be stored in the same way. Management will dictate storage areas.


Take your apron off when you leave the kitchen or food prep area, especially when going to the bathroom or taking out the trash.


Jewelry can harbor pathogens that could come into contact with food. Do not wear jewelry while in food prep areas or while prepping food. Never wear rings except for a plain, smooth band. Never wear watches or bracelets of any kind. Your manager may ask you to take off other pieces of jewelry unless you are a server, which may mean you can wear approved jewelry items.

Other Safe Practices

Good hygiene goes beyond clean clothing and washing hands, and helps keep you and everyone you work with safe which in turn keeps customers safe. Procedures for eating and drinking are in place to prevent hazards.

Eating, Drinking, and Tobacco Use

Your saliva contains pathogens, so there are guidelines and designated areas for eating, drinking, chewing gum, and tobacco use. Never eat, drink, chew gum, or use tobacco in service areas, food prep, or dishwashing areas. Some establishments may allow drinking from covered containers while in those areas.


Being sick at work means you might be passing pathogens to coworkers, customers, food, and/or equipment. Inform your manager if you experience vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice (yellow eyes or skin), or sore throat with fever. You could be experiencing foodborne illness.


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