All About NSF Certifications and Shelving

While there are many kinds of metal shelving on the market, not all meet the specialized needs of food service and health care facilities. Adequate width, stability, shelf height, ease of construction, and other basic factors all must be considered. For smaller restaurants and bars, making the most of narrow spaces becomes a challenge, as shelves must be placed creatively in as many places as possible.

However, the single biggest factor affecting shelving selections should be sanitation. Certain materials and designs are not well-suited for food service and medical environments, as they are hard to thoroughly clean. Porous materials like wood are not a good choice, but even some plastics can be problematic. Design problems, such as tight corners that are hard to clean, are not always easy to spot when sourcing shelves and containers.

The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) is an American organization that has created international standards for food storage equipment, including shelving and other furniture. Even something as simple as shelving can and should be certified by the NSF if the shelf is used in a food service or food warehouse environment. While any metal shelving may seem safe for food storage applications, the NSF’s carefully written standards are often used by local health department regulations.

What is NSF International?

In the early 1900s, sanitation problems caused preventable illnesses to run amok in American cities. While inadequate hand-washing and outdoor sanitation problems caused some of these, others occurred in restaurants and healthcare facilities that weren’t able to thoroughly clean their equipment.

NSF International was founded in 1944 to help promote public health by educating manufacturers, consumers, and regulatory agencies on best practices for maintaining sanitary food environments. While the organization specializes in food service equipment and preparation environments, some of its research applies to water purification, pharmaceutical manufacturing, sanitation in disaster situations, and other specialized fields. Recently, NSF International has also designed new certification for environmental sustainability, specifically around manufacturers’ use of safe chemicals.

Though NSF International is a private entity, it works closely with public officials and provides complimentary copies of its regulations to national and local regulatory agencies. Since NSF International product certification is accepted as the standard in many countries, the organization has offices and laboratories around the world. NSF International also collaborates with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to help create uniform sets of guidelines for products.

NSF International Shelving Regulations

The same NSF regulations cover shelves that store packaged, unpackaged, and cooked food. Even packaged food can leak, spill, or otherwise get out of its container, so all food service shelving ends up having the same general sanitation concerns. These standards also cover shelves that store clean equipment because sometimes food ends up in unexpected places in a food service environment.

For food service environments, NSF regulations mainly focus on material safety and eliminating ridges and corners that are difficult to thoroughly clean. Wood is generally disallowed in warehouse and commercial kitchen shelving, though in some cases it is allowed if encased in another material or if only used for decoration. This is partly because of the difficulties of sealing wood adequately, as even lacquered wood isn’t completely resistant to moisture and bacteria.

NSF allows stainless steel, aluminum and certain plastics to be used in shelving construction. All materials used must be smooth and resistant to cracking. Making NSF-certified plastic can be somewhat difficult, so it’s more common for shelving to be entirely made of metal.

Additional Rules

There are a few additional regulations that may apply depending on how shelving will be used. For example, shelving that will be storing unpackaged food like fruits and vegetables is subject to a few additional rules to manage spills.

Containers and drawers used on shelves can also be NSF certified. NSF certified containers are generally subject to the same material restrictions as shelves and have similar rules regarding internal corners being easy to clean.

There are also additional rules for shelving in pharmaceutical facilities, biosafety cabinets, and other specialized shelving and cabinetry. Since specific applications can vary widely, industry-specific publications and consultants are sometimes the best source for clear guidance on what NSF regulations apply to various business’ equipment.

Other Certifications

ANSI and ISO regulations are standard for some types of kitchen equipment, and ANSI co-signs most of NSF’s regulations for shelving. Underwriters Laboratories (UL) focuses on certifying electrical and gas equipment but has a UL Sanitation certification program that has similar requirements to NSF/ANSI. Equipment manufactured outside of the U.S. may be built in accordance with various other countries’ laws, but the NSF/ANSI certification is recognized in the U.S. and many other countries, making it the gold standard in shelving manufacturing.

Some manufacturers may advertise products that are certified by an industrial or scientific organization. While these certifications may hold some merit, they are rarely as important as NSF’s seal of approval.

It’s also important to note that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve individual brands and models of kitchen equipment, so the agency may not certify any food service equipment that claims to be FDA approved. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends or requires certain types of shelving in some storage applications but does not certify individual brands. These agencies often adopt NSF regulations and certification; however, so products that are NSF certified may be permissible for use in businesses regulated by these agencies.

Local Health Departments

While not all local health departments in the U.S. use NSF standards in their regulations, many do. It is common for health departments to require many types of food service equipment to be certified by NSF, though some will accept UL Sanitation or comparable certification. Shelving is not always included in these regulations since it’s periphery equipment that rarely comes into direct contact with food. However, health departments will still usually regulate the types of materials used in shelving and ban porous materials like wood.

It is uncommon for local health departments to be stricter than NSF, but it does happen on occasion. For example, some regulations may require certain shelves to be made of metal and not NSF-certified plastics. Check your own local health department’s regulations before buying any new shelving, even if it is NSF-certified.

It is also possible for health departments not to require NSF-certified shelving at first, and then make their standards stricter later on. In these cases, businesses that use out-of-compliance shelving may be grandfathered in and granted an exemption or may be given a certain amount of time to come into compliance.

Limits of NSF Certification

NSF certification doesn’t guarantee that your shelving will stay sanitary forever. Plastics, in particular, can warp and crack, and while NSF-certified plastics should resist most damage, they are not indestructible. Make sure that staff are treating shelving and containers with reasonable care.

NSF-certified equipment must be used somewhat consistently across a kitchen or warehouse to truly benefit from it. For example, using high-quality stainless-steel shelving with low-quality plastic containers basically negates the benefits of those shelves. In some health departments’ jurisdictions, some equipment doesn’t have to be NSF-certified, but use your best judgement and upgrade to certified shelving if it will help keep your workplace more sanitary.

Naturally, NSF-certified shelving must still be maintained appropriately. Missing bolts and other parts can weaken shelving, or can open up spaces for bugs and vermin to get in. If any parts are missing or damaged, make sure to replace them with appropriate parts from the manufacturer. Ill-fitting replacement parts can create surfaces that contain sharp corners or difficult-to-clean spaces, which can cause problems during your next health inspection.

Cleaning Best Practices

Many establishments focus on cleaning dishes and utensils but neglect walls and shelves. Since airborne grease and dust can still build up on shelves that don’t store food, all shelving in the kitchen should be thoroughly disinfected at least twice a month. Any shelving that stores unpackaged food should be disinfected at least once a month, though the containers on it should be cleaned much more frequently. Storage room shelving that only stores unused equipment or sealed packaged goods should be thoroughly disinfected at least once every six months, and more often if there have been any spills or leaks in the vicinity.

NSF-certified metal and plastic shelves are required to be made of a material that can be thoroughly disinfected with industry-standard disinfectants. As a general rule, the best cleaning procedure is to wipe down the shelving first, using degreaser if needed to clean all surfaces thoroughly. Then, use disinfectant to kill bacteria that could be growing. If the shelving is made of wire, make sure to clean between and under wires and in other small spaces. Check the shelving manufacturer’s directions to see if a specific procedure or product is recommended.

Remember the shelves themselves aren’t the only surfaces that need cleaning. Supports and other parts need to be cleaned, as staff can inadvertently transfer bacteria from dirty areas to clean ones with their hands or equipment. If the shelving has any decorative wood, check the manufacturer’s directions.

Cleaning is also an excellent time to inspect shelving for any cracks, missing parts, warping, or other signs of wear. For storage room shelving that doesn’t get cleaned often but has a lot of foot traffic nearby, try to give the shelving a quick visual inspection every 2-3 months to make sure no parts are missing or damaged. As a general rule, shelving in food service environments should be replaced or fixed with manufacturer-approved parts if any damage is evident.

Food Safety Scandals

Most food poisoning incidents in the United States have been due to foods not being properly pasteurized or cooked and cannot usually be blamed on a dirty warehouse or commercial kitchen shelving. However, the possibility for contamination to occur on shelving exists, especially when raw fruits and vegetables are involved. Even improperly stored raw meat can cause problems when drips onto other foods.

Proper food storage practices are somewhat more important that the types of shelving used, but health departments can and will still shut a business down for having dirty shelves or shelves that are clearly out of compliance with regulations. That shutdown can seriously tarnish the image of a business, so it’s best to be overly cautious and even hire extra staff if needed to help keep things clean.

When to Buy New Shelves

NSF-certified shelving such as Jaken wire shelving, which features rust resistant chrome plating holds up well even in busy commercial kitchens. You may be able to hold onto the same shelves for decades, especially if they’re made of stainless-steel. However, damaged shelves often need to be replaced instead of repaired, especially if a surface has become cracked and susceptible to bacteria.

Keep an eye out for damage, especially to wheels, bolts, and plastic parts. Careless staff can cause a surprising amount of damage, and while that damage can appear superficial, it can still result in a citation during health inspections. In particular, inspect aluminum wire shelving closely, as wire can get bent enough to snag on clothing or plastic items that come into contact with it.

You should also buy new shelves if there is any doubt about whether or not your shelves are certified. For example, if you bought your restaurant or other facility from someone else, it’s possible that the original owner cut corners and bought substandard shelving. If possible, look for the manufacturer’s name and an item number on the shelving, then research it to determine certification.

Finally, watch for situations where the NSF revokes their certification of a particular brand or model of shelving. While these situations are rare, they can result in your shelving being out of compliance with other government regulations. In that case, the NSF and the manufacturer should communicate with owners about whether the equipment in question is being recalled. Keep good records of which shelving you own and when you bought it, just in case of later problems.

Weighing Priorities

In the restaurant industry, razor-thin profit margins often mean that equipment can’t be replaced until absolutely necessary. Restaurant operators often learn to cope with griddles that don’t heat up as fast and knives that don’t cut as well anymore. However, avoiding fines and citations from the health department requires investing in appropriate equipment. Even warehouses and healthcare facilities that deal with any food storage must be careful to stay up-to-date on what’s required in their industry.

Fortunately, NSF International’s rigorous requirements end up benefiting business owners in the long-term, as they help ensure that businesses can buy quality products. Buying long-lasting shelving that can be easily cleaned doesn’t have to be a guessing game. As the worldwide leader in sanitation certification, NSF International’s work has truly helped reduce food safety issues in the past 75 years. All you have to do is look for their label on all types of food service equipment.