Serving safe food in a restaurant: the least you need to know as small business owner

When it comes to selling food in a restaurant there are many laws and obligations that come with the business. These laws may seem burdensome at times, but they exist to promote health and safety and enforcement of them is serious business. Let’s take a look at some of the overarching laws and duties that regulate the sale of food in a restaurant.

Uniform Commercial Code

The Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) regulates the sale of goods generally and also covers the sale of food. There is an implied warranty of merchantability that covers “the serving for value of food or drink to be consumed either on the premises or elsewhere.” Restaurants sell food and therefore there is a warranty that the food sold be merchantable. This means that the food must be safe for human consumption and that the managers must take steps to protect guests from foodborne illnesses or any other injury caused by unwholesome food and beverages.

Local health departments

Local health departments will perform routine inspections of restaurants and may conduct training or certification classes for those who handle food. Managers must know the local health department’s regulations and work hard to comply with them. Otherwise, they will have little protection if someone gets sick from improperly prepared food or a foodborne illness that affects many people. The National Restaurant Association has a ServeSafe program that can help guide restaurants in keeping their food safe.

What to do in case someone gets sick from your restaurant’s food?

Here are some steps to follow to protect your customers and your restaurant in case someone gets sick:

  • Document the name, address and phone number of the customer who got sick
  • Note the type of food that was consumed and when
  • Obtain the name and address of the customer’s treating physician and encourage them to contact her if he has not already done so
  • Follow up with the physician to see if a case of foodborne illness has been diagnosed
  • Notify local health department officials immediately if a foodborne outbreak is confirmed; they can determine the source and try to identify anyone affected by it
  • Evaluate and, if necessary, modify your restaurant’s training and certification related to the incident
  • Document your efforts and notify your attorney


There are laws and departments that regulate the sale of food in a restaurant to protect against food-related injuries. Some of these, like the UCC, provide general duties and some have more detailed rules, like those of a local health department. As an owner of a restaurant it is important to have an understanding of these laws, and if a food related injury does occur, it is important to take swift and decisive action. For a more detailed account of the laws affecting you contact a local attorney or your local health department.[1]

[1] Barth, Stevens, Hayes, David K. and Ninemeier, Jack D., Restaurant Law Basics, (John Whiley and Sons Inc. 2001).