California Food Handler Card: What It Is and How to Get One

California food handler card

If you have a food-related business in California, any employees preparing, serving, or storing food must have a food handler card. This state-required card is also referred to as a food service license or certification. It indicates that your employees have completed the necessary food safety training to reduce the likelihood of customers getting a foodborne illness.

Food safety is a public health concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one in six Americans gets sick from contaminated food and beverages each year. California’s food handler card law requires that workers take a training course and obtain a food safety certification to work in businesses that sell food.

This overview will help you and your employees get a better understanding of the steps needed to obtain a California food handler card.

Who needs a food handler card in California?

While there are a few exceptions, most people who work in food-related businesses need a food handler card, such as full- and part-time employees in food trucks, bakeries, restaurants, bars, and catering services.

According to SB 602, all waitstaff, cooks, bussers, bartenders, hostesses handling food, and beverage pourers must have the card. Although this is a state requirement, some California counties, including Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego, have separate food safety card programs.

Once you hire an employee in a position where they handle food, they have 30 days to obtain a food handler card. In California, the exception to this time frame is San Diego County, which requires employees to get a card ten days from their hire date.

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The California Restaurant Association notes that some foodservice employees are not required to have a food handler card if they work in areas such as:

  • Certified farmers’ markets
  • Grocery stores
  • Licensed health care facilities
  • Public and private school cafeterias
  • City, county, and state detention facilities
  • Elderly nutrition programs
  • Volunteer positions

How to get a California food handler card

Before your employees can obtain a food handler card or certificate, they first need to complete a short food handler training course and pass the test.

In California, that food handler certificate must come from an organization accredited by the ANSI National Accreditation Board (ANAB) to ensure the course information meets industry requirements.

1. Take the food handler training course

Many organizations offer ANSI-accredited food handler training that can help employees pass the test. The California Restaurant Association suggests going through the ServSafe program, which is developed with the National Restaurant Association. This training, like others, offers online training and exams in multiple languages and has the option for in-person learning. The training fee is capped at $15, which employers are required to reimburse if they sell food, according to the California Restaurant Association.

To sign up for training, your employee can visit the ServSafe site and search for “California food handler card.” For an online course and test, your employee can add the course “ServSafe Food Handler California Online Course and Assessment” to the cart, then pay the processing fee.

The ServSafe training provides 60 to 90 minutes of instruction, and covers topics like basic food safety, personal hygiene, cross-contamination and allergens, time and temperature, and cleaning and sanitation. It also provides practice tests so workers can increase the odds that they’ll pass the first time they take the test.

Attendees will learn:

  • What foodborne illnesses are and what their symptoms look like
  • How contamination occurs
  • How to identify biological, chemical, and physical hazards
  • When and where they should wash hands
  • What items employees can and cannot wear when handling food
  • Symptoms of illness that employees need to report to management
  • How to thaw, cook, hold, and cool food correctly
  • What is the Temperature Danger Zone?
  • What foods need time and temperature control
  • What signs indicate food was contaminated before it was received
  • What the Big Eight food allergens are and how to keep them from causing an allergic reaction
  • When to clean vs. sanitize surfaces
  • How to set up a three-part sink
  • How to correctly handle garbage

2. Pass the test

Once an employee completes the course, they can take the test online or in person. Employees can request disability accommodations if needed.

The test consists of 40 multiple-choice questions. Employees must get 70% of the questions correct, except in San Diego, where an 80% pass rate is required. If that goal isn’t reached, your employee can retake the exam.

3. Download the California food handler card

After passing the test, your employee can pay about $8 and download the official food handler card. Cards may look different, depending on the organization that issues them.

Businesses may, but aren’t usually required to, pay for the course and test for their employees. However, if your business is a food facility and provides the course as part of in-house food safety, you are required to pay for an employee’s time and expense for taking the course and test, according to the California Restaurant Association. The card is valid for three years before your employee will need to renew it by retaking the test. As long as your employee works in a food handling position, they must keep the card updated.

As a food business manager or owner, you’re required to maintain a record that confirms each employee has a valid food handler card, and have that information available to show to government officials or inspectors as needed.

Please note that the information contained in this article is limited in scope and is only intended as a high-level overview of the topics discussed. The information is current as of the publication date only, and the laws (and associated agency and/or judicial interpretations) on the topics discussed could change at any point in the future. Block, Inc. (including its affiliates, subsidiaries, employees, officers, directors, attorneys, and tax advisors) undertakes no obligation to update this article for future changes in the law. In addition, laws vary by jurisdiction, and this article does not attempt to address all jurisdictions — for example, states, counties, or cities often have requirements that differ from federal law. Nothing in this article is or should be used as tax or legal advice. In particular, this article cannot be relied upon for the purposes of avoiding taxes, penalties, or other obligations under applicable law. For guidance or advice specific to your business, you should consult with a qualified tax and/or legal professional.