Are Food Trucks Worth the Risk?

Today, it’s not uncommon to see farmer’s markets and community centers advertising a diverse line of foods served by food truck vendors. With the popularity of food trucks increasing 15% over the past year, you might question the safety of eating from a portable kitchen. There are several factors to look for before taking a bite.

Let Common Sense Be a Guide

When you go to the bathroom in a restaurant, you typically notice a sign by the sink reminding employees to wash their hands before returning to work. There is a good reason for this prompt. The majority of food-borne related illness are the result of an employee’s bad hygiene.

When deciding whether to indulge in food prepared from a food truck, look to see if the employees are wearing gloves. Although some states may not require gloves, a vendor that takes food safety seriously will use gloves when serving food. Patrons also need to remember to wash their hands before eating.

A License to Dine?

Most cities require food trucks to have a valid license to serve food. Having a legal license subjects vendors to health inspections. Many, but not all cities, require vendors to make their license visible. If a license isn’t visible, ask to see one.

No matter how good his food tastes, if the vendor can’t produce a license, take your business to a food truck vendor with a legal license. After all, supporting these unlicensed trucks will only further encourage them to ignore regulations and standards.

Keeping it Cool…or Hot

Since one in six Americans will suffer some type of food-borne illness each year, one of the biggest challenges of a food truck is keeping food at a safe temperature. This means keeping cold food cold and hot food hot.

Storage temperatures are especially difficult to maintain in mobile cooking because the equipment is often not as sophisticated as inside a normal restaurant. Plus, being outside means being exposed to the heat, thus storage temperatures of meats, fish, and poultry have to be especially scrutinized—especially because these foods are some of the most common foods that can cause consumers to get sick.

When cooking food, temperature is also important. There is a reason, aside from taste, that most diners will send back undercooked food: bacteria. If the meat is not heated to the correct internal temperature, the chance for contamination skyrockets.

Often, it is good practice to let food, especially meat, sit for a few minutes. Not only does this give hot oils or juices time to cool down on the surface of the meat, but the food will continue to cook as it sits. This continuous rise in temperature will further ensure that there are no harmful microbes remaining.

Less Space, Mo’ Problems

Food trucks face a lot of unique health and safety issues because of their size and unique venue. Since cooks have to prepare food in a confined space, there is a lot less room to work with. This creates a high risk of cross contamination, by allowing raw food to touch areas of the kitchen where cooked food or “clean” dishes are also placed.

The confined space also allows for fewer people to be in the “kitchen” at one time. This means the person who prepared the food (thereby handling the raw, bacteria-ridden meats and poultry) may also be the one serving it to you.

Without rigorous sanitation guidelines and frequent use of disposable gloves and hand washing, the chance of contamination and food-borne illnesses such as Botulism, Campylobacteriosis, E. coli, Hepatitis A, Norovirus Infection, Salmonellosis, and Shingellosis is much higher.  In fact in 2011, 85 cases of Salmonella were reported to have been a result of food consumed at a mobile food truck in Alberta, Canada.

Food trucks are also much more exposed to the elements. They don’t have the luxury of being in a contained building. This means more flies, more pests and more problems. Even when the mobile restaurant is not in use, any number of rodents and other creatures are trying to infiltrate the truck and dine on leftover food scraps.

The Verdict?

Does this mean you need to swear off your habitual, late night chili cheese dog from the local food truck? Lucky for you, you can probably keep the ritual. In fact, studies show that health code violations in food trucks are far less significant than in their brick and mortar competitors. There are approximately 8 violations in food trucks in major cities compared to 17 in their restaurants contenders.

However, being aware of these safety issues is important and checking the health code grade of the truck may save you from chowing down on some possibly contaminated and mishandled foods, especially if the grade is low.

That said, a lot of diners have begun to cut their favorite trucks some slack and accepting the risk of eating from a B-graded establishment because they understand these unique challenges of mobile food stops.