Are food safety certificates the answer to “ticking the training box”?

This blog has been provided by  Euan MacAuslan, FRSPH, MIFST, MCIEH, MSET, Environmental Health Practitioner, Qualified Teacher Learning and Skills.  (under production as of 9 April 2021)


Are food safety certificates the answer to “ticking the training box”?


Well, the answer to that question all depends upon what happens to the learner once they have been on a course or completed an e-learning programme, and what their manager believes about the food safety training. Let us explore the issue of certificate courses and how they may help contribute to food safety. “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.” (Goethe 1749-1832.)

Over the last 31 or more years’ experience of delivering, speaking, and writing about food safety training there are several myths that remain. When did these myths start? Probably with the introduction of the Food Safety Act 1990, section 23, which stated that A food authority may provide, whether within or outside their area, training courses in food hygiene for persons who are or intend to become involved in food businesses, whether as proprietors or employees or otherwise.

Below are some quotes that I have read and still read on websites, in letters, and promotional material, or been told by some enforcement officers, consultants, trainers, food business operators, training managers, and learners attending courses. How many do you think are true?

  • “Food Safety Certificates are a legal requirement.”
  • “Food Safety Certificates expire after three years.”
  • “Food handlers must attend the same food safety course every three years.”
  • “Food Safety Certificates prevent food poisoning.”
  • “My staff are trained as they have been on a food safety course.”
  • “I cannot legally employ a food handler unless they have a food safety certificate.”


If you have answered “true” to any of the above, can you now produce the written evidence to back up your answers? Difficult, isn’t it? Did you arrive at your conclusions because you had been told by someone or read something somewhere that was not backed up by legislation or an interpretation from the Food Standards Agency? Let us take each statement in turn. Then we will look at how you can get the best out of training your staff and how it will help your business.


“Food Safety Certificates are a legal requirement.”

The Food Standards Agency website states that: “In the UK, food handlers don’t have to hold a food hygiene certificate to prepare or sell food. The skills taught in official training programmes can also be learned by training on-the-job, self-study, relevant prior experience”. Not even the Industry Guide to Good Hygiene Practice Catering Guide states that a certificate is a legal requirement.

“Food Safety Certificates expire after three years.”

No! Where is it written down? Certainly not in food safety legislation. What is the evidence for expiry? Well, in the late 1970s, it was St John Ambulance that came up with the first basic food hygiene certificate course. The three-year wording from the first aid certificate was added to the food hygiene certificate.

“Food handlers must attend the same food safety course every three years.”

Where is the science-based evidence for three years? There is plenty of evidence from educational behavioural researchers to suggest learners will become bored by attending a course with the same contents and it will not necessarily change their hygiene practices as they will just be learning to pass the exam. Learner fatigue and disinterest will set in.  Besides which, what happens if there is an issue with your food safety management system, a customer has an allergic reaction, and enforcement officer finds fault, there is a complaint, etc? Are you really going to wait three years? Think about continuing professional development opportunities.

“Food Safety Certificates prevent food poisoning.”

Certificates do not prevent food poisoning. It is food handlers that can, given the tools and leadership,  prevent food poisoning,

“My staff are trained as they have been on a food safety course.”

Here the UK legislation has a problem. There is no legal definition of training. We will look at this later.

“I cannot legally employ a food handler unless they have a food safety certificate.”

Why not? If you are interviewing a potential food handler, do you ask if they have a food safety certificate? Better still, do you ask them to demonstrate a hygiene intervention (hand washing, temperature monitors, using a sanitiser, etc) and then ask them what they are doing this and what to do if something goes wrong?

The current legislation requires that food business operators must ensure that food handlers receive the appropriate supervision and instructed and/or trained in food hygiene matters, which is in-line with the area they work in and will enable them to handle food in the safest way.  In addition, those that are responsible for the development and maintenance of a system based on the principles of HACCP, must have received adequate training in the application of the HACCP principles.


Missing definitions

However, the law makers forgot to provide legal definitions of Supervision, Instruction, and Training. These could be defined as:

Supervision: Leading by example and ensuring that food handlers are competent to comply with food safety legislation to ensure the safe service of food to consumers.


Instruction: Giving an order, direction, advice, and information about how to do or use something.

Training: The supervised practical implementation of food safety theory taught on a course or via an e-learning programme until the learner is deemed confident to carry out their duties in a safe way.


What then are the benefits of qualification courses and certificates?

There are plenty of particularly good reasons why food handlers will benefit from attending a course and gaining a qualification. But managers and supervisors must ensure that they have a higher level of training than their staff otherwise they cannot effectively demonstrate the control of food safety in their businesses. In addition, managers and supervisors must allow time to help with this returning from a course with turning the theory into supervised practice. Just a few of the benefits are listed below:

Motivation of staff. Contributes to the food safety culture. Sets a nationally recognised benchmark. May be a requirement for a promotion. Provides a theoretical understand of food handlers’ duties at different levels of responsibilities in an organisation.
Sense of achievement by the learners obtaining a qualification. A regulated qualification may provide under pinning knowledge for entry to a further or higher-level qualification in a similar or allied subject. May contribute towards a due diligence defence. May contribute to a higher food hygiene rating as effective and implemented training demonstrates confidence in management. May help with audits and inspections.
A qualification shows employers, teachers, and learners what an individual has learnt and what they can do because of that learning. Training at a particular level demonstrates what an individual can do because of learning plus practical implementation. Behavioural change. May meet the requirements of your insurers. CAN LIST MORE?


What are the Levels of training and qualifications?

The levels of food safety training are as follows (click here for more details link):

  • Level 1 – ensures that employees from all food sectors are equipped with a knowledge of basic food hygiene to enable them to produce safe food.
  • Level 2 – ensures that a food handler is aware of the hazards and controls associated with the types of food they produce.
  • Level 3 – ensures that managers and supervisors are aware of the legislation applicable to food safety and how to communicate the required standards to employees.
  • Level 4 – ensures that managers or those will with specific food safety duties are aware of the procedures and standards required to ensure safe food is always served and that due diligence is taken.

These levels are matched with the Levels laid out in Ofqual’s Regulated Qualification Framework (RQF). For instance, if a learner has sat a Level 2 course covering food safety in catering, manufacturing or retail and passed the RQF exam at Level 2, they will receive a Level 2 Award in Food Safety in Catering, or Manufacturing, or in Retail.

Regulated awarding qualification bodies set standards for trainers who wish to register with them to deliver their courses that lead to qualifications within the Regulated Qualification Framework (RQF). RQF qualifications are made up of units and credits and regulated by OFQUAL, the department that regulates qualifications, exams and tests in England and vocational qualifications in Wales and Northern Ireland. This means these courses and subsequent awards are fully recognised in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Those outside the RQF are not recognised and cannot be used as evidence of underpinning knowledge required by other awarding bodies of educational establishments. But you may be able to demonstrate that within your own organisation there are staff who have appropriate training skills and knowledge to demonstrate that learners have reached a specific level of understanding and practical implementation without or holding a qualification.

Attending a qualification course on its own is education. It provides knowledge and an understanding of the theory. Once the learner returns to work, as indicated above, the training will only be completed once supervised practical implementation of theory taught on a course is carried out. Managers may feel confident in comparing qualification levels and organising their own Level of training for an individual. It is a skill to do this and must be preceded by a training needs analysis. This is another benefit of attending a qualification course first before training staff.

 Planning training

“Soap and education are not as sudden as a massacre, but they are more deadly in the long run.” (Mark Twain 1835-1910). Whatever type of course attendance or training intervention is carried out, it needs planning and should be preceded by carrying out a training needs analysis. As part of the analysis planned periodical or immediate refresher training will be essential. This does not necessarily mean repeating attending another qualification course at the same Level. Refresher or reinforcement training should take place at least every 12 months, if not sooner depending upon the issues found. The training could be one to one, at the workplace, as part of a team meeting, a dedicated session, etc. An inspection or complaint, for instance, may have identified the need for refreshing handwashing techniques, or reinforcing practical temperature monitoring. Do not forget that the introduction of new equipment, chemicals, and ingredients will also require training interventions. If someone is promoted or takes on extra responsibilities, then they will initially benefit from a higher level of training. This may mean rather than relying on their Level 2 Award in Food Safety, they go on to attend a Level 3 qualification course, followed by on-site training at work.

Do some research on what is available to aid training and to keep knowledge current. For example,  Food Safety, HACCP , and Food Allergen Awareness and Control products may be useful. E-learning programmes, various Levels of taught qualification courses in food safety, HACCP, and Allergen Control, CPD sessions, webinars, attending seminars and conferences, and workshops. In-house staff may have the skills and knowledge to run training sessions either in a training room environment or at the workplace of individuals. Use the websites of various organisations such as the Food Standards Agency or your local authority.

“I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.” (Baruch Spinoza 1632-1677.) When selecting the training methods, remember to consider the needs of individuals. Issues such as language, learning difficulties such as dyslexia, and learning styles (visual, auditory, reading or writing, and kinesthetic) must be considered. Remember too that different generations have different preferences in the way they learn. So, as an example, whilst a 16–24-year-old may be happy doing an on-line course via a handheld device, someone 20-40 or more years older may prefer a training room-based environment. But it could be the other way around too. The supervisor will need to them both into the workplace to explain what needs to be done, demonstrate that action, help the learners to have a go, and then let the learners practice their new skills.

Effective training starts with those at the top of the organisation or business, then filters down to the bottom – not from the bottom up. In businesses where managers have the same level of training or no training, there is nothing more dispiriting for the staff who return from a course and their manager will not allow them to put into practice what they have been taught or provide the resources for better standards. Effective practically implemented and supervised training for all levels of employees will greatly contribute to behavioural change for the better, and thus develop an effective food safety culture.

If a business owner does display the staff’s food safety certificates on the wall for customers to see, make sure the staff are still working there! Do not forget that the certificates belong to the staff members and not the business. Also, a business cannot be awarded a food safety certificate for training.


Food safety certificates on their own do not “tick the training box”.  The food business operator (FBO)must demonstrate how they have helped individuals turn the theory into practice to ensure food safety standards are maintained all the time. This will mean effective supervision, planned refresher programmes, monitoring of standards, and depending upon circumstances sending staff on higher levels of training or using alternative training techniques. Remember that trained food handlers are not necessarily safe food handlers. The FBO must have a higher level of training than their staff. They must show how they are keeping themselves and staff up to date.


Euan MacAuslan


Environmental Health Practitioner

Qualified Teacher Learning and Skills (under production as of 9 April 2021)

For LinkedIn profile click here

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