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Page 1 ServSafe Food Handler Study Guide for the ServSafe

Time and Temperature

Controlling the time and temperature of food is the most important way to keep food safe. The “time” aspect of food safety involves such factors as food expiration dates, how long it has been out of a temperature-controlled environment, and cooking time. Because pathogens can flourish in certain conditions, controlling food storage and cooking temperature are equally important. Bacterial growth is most pronounced between 41 degrees Fahrenheit and 135 degrees Fahrenheit, so hot food should be kept well above this range and cold food should be kept in an environment below it. To ensure the food you are handling and serving is the right temperature, it should be checked with a thermometer every 4 hours. To properly check the temperature of food, be familiar with the thermometers used at your facility. Many require calibration, and all need to be cleaned and sterilized before each use. Food temperature should be double-checked for accuracy and should always be taken in the thickest part of the food.

Food Storage

When storing food, make sure it is properly labeled with the name and expiration date. Ensure that refrigerators and freezers are not overloaded and that the food that will expire first is nearest to the front so it will be consumed first. When you are done using any food that needs temperature-controlled storage, return it as quickly as possible to its proper place to prevent bacterial growth.

High-risk Foods

All food can become contaminated in the right circumstances, but certain food categories are especially sensitive. These include, but are not limited to, the following categories:

Meats, including chicken, beef, pork, and lamb



Milk and cheese

Baked potatoes

Cooked plant-based foods such as rice and beans

Sliced melons

Sliced tomatoes


Personal Hygiene

Hand washing

When done properly, hand washing is one of the most effective ways food handlers must do to prevent foodborne illnesses. To make sure washing is effective, follow this procedure:

  1. Use hot water.

  2. Apply bar or liquid soap. Antibacterial soap is not necessary.

  3. Scrub vigorously for 10–15 seconds, making sure to wash in between fingers and under nails.

  4. Rinse thoroughly.

  5. Use paper towel to turn off faucet.

  6. Dry hands on a clean paper towel or with a hand dryer.

  7. If in a restroom, open door with a paper towel.

Hand washing should occur frequently, and should always be done in the following instances:

After using the restroom

Before putting on gloves

After handling a soiled or dirty dishes or utensils

After touching money

After touching raw meat

Before food preparation


Depending on your role in the food service industry, you may be required to wear gloves. Make sure the gloves you are provided with fit comfortably. They should be changed frequently, and also in the following instances:

Before beginning a new task

Before handling ready-to-eat food (such as an apple or bag of chips).

After handling raw meat or seafood

Whenever they are dirty or damaged


As a member of the food service industry, you are also expected to keep a neat and clean appearance. This means trimmed nails, clean clothing, and loose or long hair fastened securely back. Artificial nails and finger nail polish are typically not allowed, and many employers do not allow jewelry (though some make an exception for a plain wedding band). If you have an injury or sore on your arm or hand, the affected area should be covered with a bandage and a finger cot and/or glove. If the injury is oozing or infected, you should not handle food.

Cleaning and Sanitation

Cleaning and sanitation of the food preparation area are critical in keeping food safe for consumption. While the equipment and products used to sanitize dishes and food surfaces may vary by facility, the general principles of sanitation are always the same. Any surface that touches food must be cleaned after each use, after 4 hours of use, before a different type of food is used, or any time it becomes dirty or soiled. These surfaces include utensils, dishes, cutting boards, and pans. Surrounding surfaces such as countertops, walls, storage shelves, and kitchen floors should also be cleaned frequently to help prevent bacterial growth.

Just because something looks clean doesn’t mean it is. To properly sanitize, you must:

  1. Clean the surface.

  2. Rinse the surface.

  3. Sanitize the surface.

  4. Allow the surface to air-dry.

The water used to sanitize an item should be at least 171 degrees Fahrenheit, and the chemicals used should include a heavy-duty cleaning agent such as Chlorine, Ammonia, or Iodine. No matter which type of chemical your facility uses, make sure they are accurately labeled and stored in an area well away from food and food handling. If the facility you work for has a dishwashing machine, make sure you follow manufacturer’s recommended guidelines and never overload the machine.

Allergens and Contaminants

Food Allergies

The most common food allergens are as follows:




Nuts, including peanuts, and tree nuts such as pecans and walnuts



If you are serving a customer with food allergies, make sure you give them as much information as possible about the ingredients of the dish and how it is prepared. While preparing the dish, special care should be taken to prevent cross-contamination with any allergen or allergen-related ingredients. Allergens can be tricky to manage, but accurate communication between the staff and customer can provide a safe and enjoyable dining experience.

Types of Contamination

There are three types of food contamination: biological, physical, and chemical.

Physical contamination occurs when a foreign object is found in the food, such as a hair.

Biological contamination occurs when bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites are present.

Chemical contamination occurs when cleaning agents, sanitizes, or pesticides enter the food.