Foodservice is all about bringing people together around a table and creating experiences that make people happy. Even though the end result is about as hyper-local as you can get - sitting around a table - a global industry works hard in the background to make these great experiences happen.
Many of the tabletop items used in commercial foodservice are manufactured overseas, then distributed and sold to American restaurateurs. But America (and Europe, for that matter) has some of the most stringent regulations when it comes to food safety, including the products that are used to make, store, and serve food. So how do we know which companies are making the best products that also live up to American regulatory standards?
Certification from the National Sanitation Foundation, or NSF, is represented by a small logo you can find on dinnerware and other foodservice items that carries with it a big promise: the products you're using have passed a rigorous certification process ensuring their safety for use in foodservice.
At G.E.T., we have more than 30 years' experience in the tabletop wares industry. We've been around and understand what a big role NSF certification plays in bringing peace of mind to our customers and their guests. Let's take a look at what NSF certification entails and why it's important for your foodservice operation to be educated about this credential. We'll keep most of the focus on melamine dinnerware because it's our core offering, but we'll cover some other materials, too.
What is NSF Certification?
NSF was founded in 1944 with the aim of improving public health. They have become the global leader and industry standard for sanitation testing on many foodservice items. Regular meetings with the World Health Organization (WHO) and key public health and regulatory officials keep them aligned and up to date with current regulations and standards.
Fundamentally, getting an NSF certification on products made overseas bridges the gap between foreign and domestic regulations, ensuring all products that undergo the review process are in line with the highest health and safety standards. NSF states:
Choosing a product certified by NSF lets you know the company complies with strict standards and procedures imposed by NSF. From extensive product testing and material analyses to unannounced plant inspections, every aspect of a product's development is thoroughly evaluated before it can earn our certification.
With NSF certification comes the guarantee that:
- The manufacturers of foodservice products, many of which are made in Asian countries, use only FDA-approved raw materials
- Products passed numerous NSF testing for material safety, design, construction, and product performance
- The design of the product shape will not allow for food to collect and harbor bacteria (no 90° angles)
- Products are commercial dishwasher safe and will uphold heat and durability
At G.E.T., 100% of our melamine dinnerware is NSF-certified, which you can review here.
We're the only company in the melamine dinnerware category for foodservice (that we've been able to identify) that maintains NSF certification for every single melamine product we have. Even if we add a seemingly insignificant piece, say a small bowl, to an existing line, it will get and maintain NSF certification.
Further, that means all factories that manufacture our melamine products are NSF certified. We consciously choose to pursue this certification, which can cost around $1,500 per item.
Obtaining an NSF certification is something that companies choose to opt into because it goes one step further than meeting FDA requirements. This is because the NSF certification process puts individual dinnerware pieces through extreme environmental testing - conditions that go far beyond what would be considered normal use - to ensure product sanitation, design, and durability. Additionally, NSF certification requires annual reviews, so once a product is certified, it must continue to meet NSF standards as long as it's in production.
KEY TAKEAWAY: NSF certification carries with it a long-term commitment of holding foodservice manufacturers, raw materials, and products accountable to the highest standards available in the US and Europe, maintaining the integrity of NSF-certified products.
Why do we go to all this trouble to certify our products? Because we understand serving food on easily and thoroughly sanitized dinnerware is non-negotiable for the majority of foodservice operators. And we'll tell you why you should care, too. But first, let's take a look at some common foodservice materials and their NSF eligibility.
Different Materials and NSF Certification Eligibility
Some products aren't eligible for NSF certification. The reasons vary, but basically boil down to whether or not an item has a smooth surface that can be easily cleaned and sanitized according to their intended use. Items with 90° angles, regardless of the material they're made with, can be difficult to certify because food can get stuck in those corners. Also, porous items like wood and ceramic can be certified, but with some use restrictions/caveats.
Only melamine dinnerware made from pure melamine can pass NSF certification. In an attempt to stretch product, some melamine manufacturers will integrate unapproved additives into their raw material that are potentially not cleared by the FDA. Products that aren't made with pure melamine don't perform well in high-volume foodservice because they dont have the same composition as pure melamine. In some cases this results in breaking or chipping long before higher quality melamine will.
It also guarantees that the ingredients used to make melamine dinnerware meet or exceed FDA standards for food contact surfaces.
Wooden Foodservice Items
Wood cannot be used for dinnerware or serveware items because it's porous. It can, however, be certified for cutting board use. This is because cutting board use typically only requires food to be in contact with the surface for a short amount of time. This limits the amount of food particles that can be absorbed by the wood, which makes wooden cutting boards safe for use.
If food was served on wooden plates, it would be in contact with the dinnerware for the whole course of the meal, allowing too much time for food particles to migrate into the wood.
Natural (uncoated) ceramic dinnerware is also porous and can soak up anything from the food that's sitting on it. Those food particles can then be harbored inside the ceramicware, which means it can't be fully cleaned under normal circumstances.
Most ceramic material in foodservice has a coating on it to seal up the pores. However, only some coatings and glazes can be NSF certified. They must meet standards set by the FDA to be eligible for certification. If a coating or glaze doesn't currently have FDA approval, for example, a glaze that's new to the market, then NSF will do its own toxicology testing. Coatings and glazes that fall short of NSF standards during testing are then adjusted until they qualify.
However, this can be an expensive process that not all manufacturers are willing to pay for, often passing the cost off to the client or skipping certification altogether. Ceramicware with an official NSF logo offers consumers the highest level of safety, so be sure to check for it.
Metal Foodservice Items
Metal foodservice items are typically either used to cook with, or come in the form of hollowware (tea pitchers, etc.), displayware, flatware, and drinkware. Some metal is eligible for NSF certification, and some doesn't need to be certified. It depends on the intended use.
For example, many metal baskets featuring grid patterns have 90° angles (often a disqualifier because food can get stuck), and some have coatings that may not be NSF-certified. However, these baskets aren't intended to be used as a direct food contact surface. Instead, food-safe paper or linen liners are used as a barrier between the metal and the food. In this use case scenario, metal does not need to be NSF certified because it's not intended to be used as a food contact surface.
If you think about the intended use cases for hollowware, displayware, etc., where the metal is a direct food contact surface, most of those pieces are usually flat and/or have rounded edges (no 90° angles). They're intentionally designed with those characteristics because it prevents food from getting stuck in corners, which can cause bacteria buildup.
If a certain piece of metal ware is intended for direct contact with food does not pass the initial review process, NSF will work with designers and manufactures to make the necessary changes until the product can pass inspection.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Some materials lend themselves to NSF certification better than others due to how porous they are or which components make up a coating or glaze. Eligibility essentially comes down to whether a product has a smooth, easily cleaned surface and is free of unapproved chemicals. NSF works with willing manufacturers to help them adjust product designs or coating/glaze components to meet their high standards.
Why You Should Care About NSF Certification for Your Foodservice Establishment
NSF-certified melamine dinnerware offers foodservice operators the assurance that their guests' health and safety are in good hands. Without it, you open your operation to products with potential design flaws, or ones that may contain chemicals they shouldn't.
Again, because the majority of melamine dinnerware manufacturers are overseas, NSF certification holds them to American health and safety standards. Regular, unannounced factory visits and annual recertification uphold NSF's standards on an ongoing basis to ensure the final product is safe for its intended foodservice use.
If your melamine dinnerware lacks an official NSF logo, pictured below, there's no telling what's in the product, how it was made, or how well it will perform durability-wise for foodservice use.
That’s why it’s important to seek out reputable companies like G.E.T. because all of our melamine products earn NSF certification. Some suppliers and manufacturers may certify some of their products illegitimately without having their factory audited.
Like we mentioned earlier, getting the factory and the production process reviewed and certified are part of a complete, valid certification. If a factory has not been audited, then any NSF logo on a product is invalid. It's unfortunate, and sometimes even an honest mistake, but we've seen it happen first-hand, which leads us to our next point.
Watch out for rogue and/or fraudulent NSF stamps. Because manufacturers understand the value of NSF certification but may be unwilling or unable to pay for it, some less reputable companies will seek out fake logos instead. You can search NSF's website to see if specific products have earned an official certification if you think you may have a phony on your hands.
The official NSF logo on melamine dinnerware will appear as it is above: embossed, and alongside other icons indicating the product's brand, whether it can be used in the microwave, where it was made, etc.
If you see a rubber-stamped NSF logo, walk away. It's an impostor.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Seeking out NSF-certified melamine dinnerware made overseas is highly recommended because it ensures those products are made to American standards via routine facility, raw materials, and manufacturing process inspections.
We encourage all consumers and commercial kitchen operators to look for official NSF certification on your melamine dinnerware for extra peace of mind. We hope the information here has helped you understand what NSF certification is, and how it will enhance your foodservice operation. If you're interested in a price comparison between melamine dinnerware and ceramic, we recommend "Cost of Melamine vs China Dinnerware: Which is More Expensive?"