A primer on food guards. 

Food Guards: An Overview

NSF classifies food shields into functional categories, including self-serve, cafeteria style or full serve.

Food shields utilize a pane of glass or clear acrylic material as a barrier between customers and food to protect it from safety hazards and contamination. Foodservice operators can choose from many food shield styles, including adjustable, institutional, decorative and custom designs.

"We categorize sneeze guards as vertical, self-serve, attended-serve and attended self-serve," says Orlando Espinosa III, principal at Orlando Espinosa + Associates, a foodservice design firm based in Glen Mills, Pa.

NSF guidelines dictate the design of this equipment. "There are numerous code requirements that need to be followed, such as clearances," Espinosa says.

Typically custom manufactured, food shield sizes can range from as short as 1 foot to as long as 100 feet. Longer sizes include connecting sections to fit over any counter length.

Pass-over units represent the most common type used in serving line operations and can accommodate one or two display shelves. Most often used in buffet or self-serve applications, reach-through food shields tend to feature a canopy style, which allows customers to see the food from all sides.

Adjustable food shields give operators the ability to change the angle or height, while fixed shields stay in place. Operations that require additional flexibility can choose from portable or temporary food shields.

Although traditionally constructed of glass and stainless steel, these pieces are now mostly either glass or acrylic for better food visibility. "The top surface of pass-through food shields should be constructed of glass to withstand the weight of plates with product," Espinosa says.

How to Know When to Replace Food Guards

Depending on use, food guards can last a decade or more. Here are five signs it might be time to replace a food shield.

Cracking: Scratches, cracks or other damage to the glass or acrylic compromises the food guard's aesthetics, which means the operator should replace the unit. "Usually the cracking is caused by customers in self-service operations or by the staff," says Josh Taylor, service director at American Kitchen Machinery, based in Philadelphia. "If the food guards aren't touched, they generally won't crack or break."

Service Conversions: When an operation changes from full-service to self-service or vice versa, the way it uses food guards will change and may require the installation of new units.

Wear and Tear: Significant wear and tear from years of use may compromise the appearance of the food guard. "Food guard brackets can be hit continuously with metal utensils, which can cause issues that compromise the equipment's integrity," Taylor says.

Design Changes: If a foodservice operation changes its theme or design, the food guards used may no longer be appropriate.

Menu Modifications: New menu items may require new food guards with different features, such as lighting for better visibility or heat for temperature consistency.

Food Guard Specifications

The basic function of food guards is to protect food from being contaminated by patrons. Here we explore some of the NSF-related standards operators need to take into account when purchasing food guards.

Operators commonly use food guards in cafeteria, buffet and food bar settings to protect menu items in both self- and full-service setups. NSF Standard 2 for food shields, which was issued in March 2008 and went into effect on Dec. 31, 2010, updates the design and construction requirements for this equipment.

All food shields must have end panels that measure a minimum of 18 inches deep from the leading edge of the front glass panel. The minimum height of the end panel should be equal to the overall height of the food shield. The gap from the bottom of the end panel to the counter shouldn't be greater than 1½ inches. End panels are not required if a food shield is installed within 3 inches of a wall.

NSF requires food shields used in front of carving stations to include a vertical barrier that is at least 60 inches above the finished floor. The opening below this barrier cannot be more than 6 inches. The distance between the food shield and food needs to be at least three-fourths the opening distance.

With self-serve food shields, the opening between the glass and counter should not be more than 13 inches, as opposed to 14 inches in the past. In addition, the sum of the food shield's protected horizontal plane and protected vertical plane should be greater than or equal to 20 inches.

These regulations require the maximum gap between glass sections to be 2 inches on these units. The minimum distance from the food shield's bottom leading edge and front inside edge of displayed food should be three-fourths of the distance of the opening, a change from the 7-inch minimum.

Full-serve shields/cafeteria-style protectors require the sum of their protected horizontal planes and protected vertical planes to be greater than or equal to 32 inches. The maximum gap between the front panel and top shelf is ¾ inches, while the maximum gap between the counter and front panel bottom is 1½ inches. The minimum distance between the food being served and front panel is 1½ inches.

Standard 2 requires the lower tier on multiple tier food shields/display cases to conform to the standards of a self-serve guard. All tiers above the bottom tier must have a permanent label attached restricting use to wrapped or prepackaged food.

These guidelines are subject to each state's health department requirements.

Maintaining Food Guards

Food guards don't require much in terms of maintenance and cleaning. But here are four easy steps to ensure an operation's food guards continue to look good and help facilitate a food-safe environment.

A foodservice operation's style of service, meaning self- or full-service, will affect how often staff will clean the food guard and the amount of maintenance this unit requires. Generally, maintenance of this equipment is a simple process and takes minimal time.

  • Use a food-safe glass cleaner or mild soap and water to wipe down food guards daily. Refrain from using abrasive cleaners and cleaning pads.
  • Regularly check brackets and tighten when necessary.
  • Readjust tilting food guards when necessary.
  • Check food guards for cracks and scratches that may compromise use.

How to Specify a Food Guard

Here are five factors foodservice operators should consider when purchasing food guards.

Design: Operators can choose from a variety of design options with this equipment. Food guards come with brackets in a variety of colors and styles as well as glass panes with designs or logos. Lighting features can increase visibility of food items, too. "Although operators can get heat or lighting accessories retrofitted to food shields in the field, it's best to specify these initially for a better aesthetic," Espinosa says.

Application: When specifying a food guard, operators need to consider how they will use these units. Adjustable types are suitable if this equipment will be used in both a self- and full-serve capacity.

Support Posts: Because tempered glass shifts under its own weight, consider the span between support posts when specifying food guards. The appropriate support structure will help prevent the glass from sagging or bowing.

Installation: Consider how the food shield will attach to the counter. The method should not only be structural, but also aesthetic so as not to block views of the food.

Clearance: Working height is another consideration when purchasing a food shield. "Operators should assess the working surface to the underside of the sneeze guard, then to the top of the unit," Espinosa says. "Those heights vary from 16 to 22 inches. There needs to be enough clearance to plate the food."

In addition, digital signage is now available with food guards, which can assist operators in marketing and merchandising food items. Food shields with UV bonded glass don't require support structures, which can inhibit views of the food and the appearance of the unit.