Foodservice Equipment Reports

Nothing To Sneeze At

Food shields, or what we used to call sneeze guards, help prevent cross contamination and provide customers with a secure sense that the food on display is protected. Despite the fact that you have to install shields to meet local health department regulations, there are lots of reasons to like food shields beyond the requirements.

They do protect your food, and your investment in terms of the time and labor to prepare it. Whether you have a self-serve,  service line, or mix of both, food set out in front of customers is exposed and subject to risk. On either a conscious or unconscious level, customers’ reaction to unprotected food ranges from uneasy to full-out disgusted.

Quality food shields also can help merchandise food, helping you increase sales and check averages. Well-designed food shields can actually present your food in a more attractive and favorable light, making it more appetizing. And with the use of tiered shelving, you have the opportunity to merchandise more items than on a straight-line countertop.

While pretty basic in nature, food shields can function as a key design element, adding tremendously to the overall look and ambiance of your operation. That, too, translates into increased traffic and sales.

Where To Start

Most manufacturers design food shields for specific applications, so the first question you answer should be how and where you plan to use them. Is your operation full-service, self-service, or both? Do you need the flexibility to switch between both types of service within a station? What type of food will you be serving at each station?

Food shields for operator service, for example, are designed differently than self-service food shields (primarily to meet NSF and/or local health codes). But several manufacturers offer models that can adapt to either type of service. Many suppliers also make portable food shields for catered events or temporary serving lines.

Manufacturers often also offer several lines to meet the needs of different types of operations (i.e., healthcare, schools, restaurants, etc.), specific operator needs and budgets, and different types of menu items. You might specify a different line for an employee-only cafeteria than you do for one that’s open to the public, for example.

Get to know and understand the local health department codes that apply to your operation. NSF standards, which have recently updated to NSF/ANSI 2(see sidebar), typically set the bar for food shields. But they haven’t been adopted by all health departments, so there may be variations in what’s required in your area. Local regs could affect how much space you have to work with. Better to find out early whether a serving line layout will work or not.

Work with a reputable consultant or designer, such as an FCSI member, who has experience in healthcare. As more of you use foodservice to increase revenues in your healthcare facilities and market your amenities to the surrounding community, design plays an increasingly important role. The appearance of your food shields can say as much about your operation as the appearance of the serving line itself.

Visit other facilities to see what’s worked and what hasn’t. Talk to other foodservice directors about their experiences with suppliers. Don’t limit your investigation to healthcare. Colleges and universities often are on the leading edge of both food and design trends in the institutional market. Lots of B&I accounts also use their company cafeterias to attract both employees and clients.

What To Look For

Your needs will be unique, but there are some basics to keep in mind as you evaluate food shields that might be right for your operation. Here are a few.

Code compliance. Since food shields are required by code, make sure the food shields you purchase and install meet the requirements your local health department. If you specify equipment that meets the new NSF/ANSI 2 standards, you should have no trouble with your health department.

If there are already food shields installed in a facility, under the NSF guidelines, they typically are grandfathered in, so no change may be required. However, the ultimate authority lies with the local health official in any given county, city, or state, and he or she can dictate regulations, whether it is endorsed by NSF or not. And there have been instances wherein local health authorities have mandated that customers with existing food shields update them to the new standard.

Quality and durability: Obviously, your budget will partly determine the materials used in the food shields you purchase and how durable they are. But there are some things you should look for at a minimum.

Frames should be made of heavy-gauge, non-oxidizing metal such as stainless steel or aluminum. (There are wood-framed shields out there, but they’re not as durable or as easy to clean, so we don’t recommend them.) Supports may be tubular, square or flat, but they should be thick enough not just to support the food shield itself, but additional weight such as a customer accidentally leaning against it.

While shields made from acrylic and Plexiglas are less expensive, glass is much more durable. Plastics scratch more easily, even with glass cleaners. Glass should be tempered to withstand bumps, and be thick enough to bear up under additional weight.

Food shields that meet NSF standards offer assurance of a certain level of durability, but that should be your starting point. Choose a supplier with longevity in the industry and a history and reputation for making food shields.

Finally, review and compare manufacturer warranties. Make sure the supplier you choose stands behind the product it sells. Find out if it offers replacement parts, at what cost, and whether it has the service network to make any necessary repairs in a timely manner.

Mounting and support: How food shields are mounted and supported might be a factor in your purchase decision. Take into account the design of the entire servery. If your stations are 8’ long, for example, you’ll have to make sure that the support structure can handle a span of that size (a few special models can). Where you divide the spans will impact sight lines and affect the look of the servery. Maximum glass lengths are typically 5½’ with 3/8”-thick glass, and 6’ with ½”-thick glass.

Some support systems require front and rear posts, which might eat into the space for—or interfere with—your food wells. Again, either make sure the look of the food shields is what you want, or choose a system that doesn’t have rear posts.

Depending on the system or model, food shields are mounted either through and below the counter or on the surface. Below-counter mounts typically offer better structural integrity and appearance, but they might require framing under the counter, which could limit space for food wells or drawers or interfere with the way your serving equipment operates.

Surface-mounts might require a mounting plate fastened to the countertop for added strength, which could detract from the look of your serving line and or interfere with counter equipment placement and spacing. Anticipate potential conflicts.

Look for systems that have screw caps to cover exposed screws, and flanges that are smooth and easy to clean.         

Even the type of counter surface you have can affect the mounts you use. The system you choose might use different fasteners for Corian, stainless or granite, and the supplier might recommend undercounter mounts or surface mounts based on these materials.

Adaptability: If you anticipate changing your concepts or changing your layout frequently, you’ll want a system that’s adaptable. Many models can convert from served to self-service by adjusting the shield angles. Many manufacturers make food shields that can be adjusted to an almost infinite number of positions.

Flexibility: You also might want a lot of flexibility to accommodate different menu items—hot food, cold food, grab-and-go items—at each serving station. In that case, you should look for systems that are more modular, allowing you to add shelves, for example, to merchandise grab-and-go items. Lighting also can help you merchandise food selections more effectively.

Consider where you want accessories such as heat lamps and lighting before you order. Make sure your food shields are properly wired in advance and UL approved. If you decide after you order food shields to include heat lamps or lighting, you’ll incur more onsite installation costs and may need a UL inspection to pass local building codes.

Cleanability: Food shields that conform to NSF standards are designed with cleanability in mind. Cracks and crevices where dirt and pests can hide are minimized, and surfaces are generally smooth and impervious to soil. That’s another reason to specify NSF-listed equipment.

Keep cleanability in mind, too, when considering finishes on the food shields you’re ordering. Some stainless finishes, for example, easily show streaks and fingerprints and are difficult to keep looking pristine (usually a “satin” or matte finish is easier to maintain than a glossy finish).

Look at your layout carefully before committing to a style or model. You might find that the support structure, for example, gives you little clearance between stations, or between a post and a wall, making it difficult to clean the countertop around the support as well as the support itself. Those areas can get very grimy over time.

Appearance: We said it before, but we’ll say it again; choose food shields that complement the overall design of your server and that present and merchandise your food in the best light. After all, the food shields you purchase are literally going to be right in your customers’ faces. Think in terms of choosing a manufacturer with the ability to make their food shields as “invisible” as possible to customers.

To get an idea of what your options are, look at some of the models offered by the manufacturers listed in the Manufacturers sidebar. If you see some you like, send the manufacturer a proposed layout of your facility and ask for recommendations. Most will be happy to work with you to find solutions to your functional needs that enhance your foodservice program while meeting regulations and your budget. And that’s nothing to sneeze at.

New NSF Food Shield Standards NSF/ANSI 2

On Dec. 31, 2010, new standards developed by NSF in 2008 for food shields took effect. That means that any manufacturer that wishes to put an NSF seal on its products must meet the new standards. Since NSF isn’t a governing body, any food shields you purchase and install must meet local health code regulations, not NSF standards. But it’s a good bet that if you purchase NSF-listed equipment and meet the NSF installation standards, you’ll satisfy health inspectors and local codes.

The previous NSF standards had been in effect since 2001, and some manufacturers’ product lines might still be made to these parameters. These products could well meet your local requirements, since many health departments haven’t yet updated their codes. Check before you specify new equipment.

Here’s what’s new:

End panels. NSF now requires end panels on all food shields unless the shield ends 3” or less from a wall. The end panels must be a minimum of 18” in depth and can’t be mounted more than 1½” above the countertop. The height of the panel must be the same height as the overall food shield.

Self-serve vs. full-serve. In its previous standards NSF made no distinction between these two types of serving lines. Now it does.

Full-service food shields must provide at least 32” of protection in any combination of vertical and horizontal planes. For instance, if the food shield is 16” high, it must have a 16” top shelf as well. The gap between the vertical and horizontal planes can’t be more than ¾”, and the gap between the counter and the bottom of the food shield can’t be more than 1½”. Finally, the distance between the food being served and the front or vertical panel of the food shield must be at least 1½”.

On self-serve lines, NSF reduced the opening between the shield and the counter (through which customers reach to serve themselves) to 13” from 14”. NSF increased the sum of the vertical and horizontal planes protecting the food to 20” from 18”. (In other words, you can have one 20-inch shield, or two pieces totaling 20”.) The maximum gap between side-by-side sections of glass is now 2” (NSF didn’t specify before). And finally, the distance of the leading edge of the food being served must be three-fourths the distance of the opening through which customers reach. For example, if the opening is 12” high from counter top to the bottom of the shield, then the food must be at least 9” from the front edge of the food shield. (Previously, this was 7” minimum.)

Multi-tiered food shields. NSF decided some clarification was needed here. Now, the lower tier must conform to the standards of a self-serve food shield. All upper tiers must have a permanently attached label that says their use is restricted to wrapped or prepackaged foods.

Now that you know, quiz your design consultants and suppliers to make sure they know, too.

Food Shield Makers

ADM Sneezeguards

BSI Designs


Eagle Group



English Mfg. Inc.


Delfield Co./Manitowoc  


Lawrence Metal Products Inc.

Premier Brass


Sneezeguard Solutions


Southern Equipment Div./Duke Mfg.


Southern Equipment Fabricators Inc.


Versa-Gard


Wizard Glass & Metal Specialties

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