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Top 10 Shelving Issues in FoodService

The Impact of Poor Shelving Conditions: Environmental Health Specialists Share the Top 10 Reasons

How bad does restaurant shelving have to be before an Environmental Health Specialist requests immediate corrective action or worse, shuts down a restaurant?

“Shelving can play a key role in increasing food safety practices, especially in walk-in coolers where improper food storage issues like double-stacking, lack of air flow and ready-to-eat food contamination can lead to an unwanted foodborne illness. Don’t let this happen to you!” cautions Shelly Wallingford with NEHA.

The walk-in cooler in a foodservice establishment typically receives great scrutiny during routine inspections. Chances are a restaurant will not be shut down if they have shelving that is rusted, dented, chipped or severely worn out. However, they could be at risk of receiving demerits, a corrective action notice and not “making the grade.”

There are other consequences to not having properly maintained shelving in a restaurant. For starters, when a Env. Health Specialist notices that shelving is not up to standards it raises flags and makes the inspector a lot more vigilant and doubtful of other areas in the restaurant. Reliable, easy-to-clean, rust and corrosion resistant shelves are a very important part of food safety as they come in direct contact with food—not intentionally, but it does happen and quite often, especially during busy periods in a restaurant. Often times, the kitchen staff is in a hurry trying to grab as many products as needed, using both hands. This often means setting one item down directly on the shelves while they grab another or while they take the time to put the lid back onto a container. After a while, epoxy coated wire shelves peel, rust, collect build-up (if not maintained) and lead to unsanitary conditions if they come into direct contact with food. Another issue is worn-out shelving that is unstable, bent, broken and overloaded with product, or worse, being held up by other items such as milk crates. This can create a serious issue for an operator as it can lead to employee injuries.

Shelving units take a lot of abuse. Think of the constant loading and unloading they sustain on a daily basis. After a while shelving components begin to deteriorate leading to unstable conditions. For safety reasons, it is just as important for operators to comply with weight-limitations set on shelving units and that they have adequate shelving space as to avoid overloading them.


We interviewed over 20 Environmental Health Specialists and one of the major, recurring issues that came up was space limitations in walk-in coolers. Storage areas, especially in walk-in coolers, are very limited in size. Operators have to try and fit as much product as possible onto the shelves in order to comply with keeping food items off the floor. This leads to overloading of product onto the shelves, adding more weight than tolerable and also making it difficult to comply with HACCP guidelines. The more product on the shelves, the more difficult to follow FIFO processes.


Here are major problems with shelving that Environmental Health Specialists shared with us:
1. Badly rusted shelves.
2. Rusted with exposed metal covered by: cardboard, aluminum foil, or plywood.
3. Warped or bent shelving.
4. Unstable shelving supported or being held up by milk crates or using zip ties, D-I-Y braces connected to an adjoining shelving unit.
5. Non-NSF Listed shelving; industrial-type shelving being used to store food.
6. Coated wire shelving with chipped paint.
7. Shelving not 6” off the ground.
8. Unclean shelving-shelving not maintained properly.
9. Wood shelving with grooves or large pores, permitting food articles or debris to hide inside.
10. Sharp edges.


Just as Environmental Health Specialists shared the problem areas, they were also very open to sharing things they like to see:
• Shelving that is easy to clean. Removable shelf plates are a plus.
• Corrosion resistant shelving.
• Vented shelf plates for food items that require additional circulation.
• Shelf plates or surfaces with anti-microbial protection that also have quick drying surfaces.
• Shelving that supports organization with proper labeling.
• Shelving that prevents bacteria, debris or dust from building up.
• Shelving that offers flexibility, shelving levels that can be added or adjusted as storage needs change.
And last but not least, “Strong and durable shelving that is not going to bend easily or break if staff decides to use it as a step stool to reach food items stored above—trust me they do it all the time!” shared a health inspection professional.

So when it comes to shelving, how bad would you allow the conditions to get before you decide it is time to replace? Perhaps it’s not the best idea to let your Environmental Health Specialist make this decision for you. At the end of the day it is not worth the risk to your customers, employees, reputation or your good-standing with your Environmental Health Specialist .

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