Can I take a different food safety certification, or does it have to be ServSafe? I see a ton of options online.
ServSafe is an internationally recognized food safety and sanitation certification based on the FDA Food Code. It is accepted by most—but not all—municipalities. (Health departments typically require a certified food handler on premise at all times.) ServSafe is administered by the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation. I have been a ServSafe instructor and proctor for many years and think it provides a good research-based foundation and a rigorous exam.
Recently, more individuals and organizations have been looking for alternatives to ServSafe, in part because of concerns that the values and politics of the National Restaurant Association are not aligned with their own. There are also concerns that the fees generated from ServSafe can support National Restaurant Association lobbying activities.
The short answer is yes. ServSafe as a brand (like Band-Aid) has become short hand for any number of food safety and sanitation certifications, including those from the Center for Food Safety, 360 Training and the National Environmental Health Association, which may be accepted by your health department. In choosing a certification program, there are many factors to consider, including the cost of materials, test fees and instruction, delivery (online synchronous, online asynchronous or face-to-face), quality and the languages the materials and exam are offered in. Also, be sure to distinguish whether food handler training or food manager training is required.
The most important consideration in choosing a program is whether it will be accepted as a credential by your health department. My advice is to go in reverse: start by asking your health department which certifications they accept and/or recommend and then choose the one (if there is a choice) that works best for you. Some municipalities, such as New York City, offer their own certification training.
By checking in advance that the program you are signing up for will be accepted by your health department, you can avoid wasting time, expense and frustration. More on training here.