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Food Protection Connection: NSF: What Does It Mean?

(reprinted from Dietary Manager, March 2007)

Each Food Protection Connection column is approved for 1 CPE hour (level 1) for RDs and DTRs.

We’ve all seen the letters, NSF. For most of us, they turned up in an introductory sanitation course, with advice to check for the NSF mark when selecting foodservice equipment. Great advice! But what is NSF, and what does the NSF mark actually mean?

A Certifying Agency

Although the name of the current organization is NSF International, the three letters came from the name of the original entity, founded in 1944 as the National Sanitation Foundation. It is an independent certifying agency. The certifying process involves these components:

  • Setting standards for products
  • Testing products
  • Authorizing use of a symbol (the official NSF seal—with the three letters “NSF” in a circle) to display compliance with the standards…as verified by the certifying agency.

If the process sounds a little mysterious, consider the parallels to DMA’s own Certifying Board for Dietary Managers, which sets competencies, provides testing services, and awards the CDM®, CFPP® credential.

The NSF also takes steps to ensure ongoing compliance with standards, periodically making unannounced plant inspections, and re-testing products. A product that meets NSF certification criteria is called an “NSF-certified” or “NSF-listed” product. Unlike a consumer rating, NSF certification does not rank products against each other. There is always one set of standards, and an evaluation of whether a given product measures up to these standards. NSF also offers “bundled” testing and certification for electrical safety following some of the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) standards.

Safety and Health Are Key

The NSF explains its goals as assuring safety, protecting the environment, and protecting public health. This fits with its roots in the School of Public Health at The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The NSF opened a testing laboratory in 1952, and regional offices in 1963. It opened an office in Belgium in 1985, and has been growing and forming alliances ever since. In 1991, it received accreditation from the National Standards Institute. Next came joint agreements and certification with many other entities worldwide.

How does all of this fit with the NSF seal on equipment—such as a commercial freezer or refrigerator? Testing for these includes the following points:

  • Cleanability is part of the design and construction.
  • The materials used are non-toxic, durable, cleanable, and resistant to corrosion.
  • The units can keep cold food cold (even in a hot kitchen).
  • The manufacturers’ instructions for cleaning and sanitizing the equipment are effective on the equipment.
  • Thermometers or temperature-sensing devices are accurate, meeting defined standards.

For a food re-thermalization unit, the testing points are similar, covering cleanability, construction materials, and accuracy of temperature-measuring devices. Standards also dictate that the unit must be able to do its intended job, i.e., heat food to a defined temperature within an acceptable period of time.

For a dishwasher, standards address the ability of the machine to remove baked-on soil, the ability to sanitize dishes, and the accuracy of thermometers, gauges, and thermostats— along with the concerns of cleanability and construction materials. For equipment that manually dispenses food and beverages, the NSF states, “Units that dispense hot, potentially hazardous beverages are tested to ensure that they maintain the proper temperature above the danger zone. Units that dispense cold, potentially hazardous beverages are tested to ensure they maintain temperatures below the danger zone.”

In all, NSF certification means that foodservice equipment can and will do what you expect it to do in key areas of sanitation—such as prevention of chemical contamination, maintenance of food temperatures outside the danger zone, cleanability to remove soil, sanitizing of food-contact surfaces, and reliable measurements.

NSF standards are designed to work in tandem with regulatory guidelines, so standards for foodservice equipment help operators purchase equipment that will support compliance with the FDA Food Code and HACCP guidelines.

Grease Collection

The regulatory-certification connection is apparent in one of NSF’s new initiatives, a testing and certification program for grease interceptors in commercial kitchens to support emerging regulations around the country. NSF describes fats, oils, and grease as an “increasingly serious problem for municipal sewer systems” with a “potential to damage property and pollute surface and ground water.” A grease interceptor is a device that collects fats and prevents their flow into the sewer system. The new NSF certification program for these devices plays a familiar tune: Certification ensures that the devices work correctly, meeting a specific set of standards developed by the NSF.

Dietary Supplements, Too

Although most of us in the foodservice industry equate “NSF” with sound purchasing practices for equipment, NSF has a new role in the dietary arena today—providing a certification program for dietary supplements. This came about in 2001, through a strategic partnership with the National Nutritional Foods Association, a trade organization; and the acquisition of the Institute for Nutraceutical Advancement, which develops testing techniques for botanical ingredients (“herbs”).

NSF certification tackles points such as verifying that ingredients are what is represented on the label—and are present in the amounts listed. It checks for undeclared ingredients or contaminants. It also verifies compliance with good manufacturing practices (GMPs) for these products.

A related certification program ensures that supplements for athletes do not contain banned substances (the Athletic Banned Substances Certification Program).

Sanitation Testing for Supermarkets

An NSF program called Shop Fresh™ targets supermarkets in their needs to manage sanitation and shelf life of foods. The service incorporates audits, microbial monitoring, and testing of suspect food products in response to consumer complaints.

You may run into the NSF name in other areas, as well—bottled water, packaged ice, organic foods, and plumbing components…to name a few. According to NSF International, “The NSF Mark can be found on millions of consumer, commercial, and industrial products today.” Growing international recognition, a tie-in with regulatory guidance, and actual product testing are among the reasons dietary managers may find NSF certification helpful in developing purchasing specifications today. For more information, visit the NSF website at

By Sue Grossbauer