How safe are food trucks?

Operators are exempt from some training requirements. Should they be?


The surge in popularity in food trucks has added a new challenge for health inspectors who must evaluate the safety of every food-service operation whether it has four wheels or a front door.

Local food trucks are licensed every year, but their initial inspection takes place when the mobile unit is not serving any food. Once the trucks go on the road, health inspectors must rely on spot inspections to evaluate how closely food-handling codes are followed.

Training in proper food safety, mandatory for kitchen managers in bricks-and-mortar restaurants, also is not required for the operators of food trucks. The disparity has led even some food truck operators to say the law should be changed to ensure that all food trucks practice safe food handling.

Local health officials say food trucks face as much or more scrutiny than traditional restaurants. Not only are they inspected before March 1 every year, but they are subject to random, “pop-in” inspections at fairs, festivals and food truck rallies, often in venues outside their home county.

“Mobile operators do tend to be inspected more than bricks-and-mortar facilities” said Jennifer Wentzel, environmental health director for Public Health – Dayton & Montgomery County.

A Dayton Daily News investigation of food inspection reports since Jan. 1, 2015, revealed no serious, chronic violations or illnesses that health officials could trace back to dishes served by a food truck. Isolated cases of dirty conditions inside food trucks were corrected when pointed out by an inspector, the investigation found.

But the review also found that food trucks operate with a different set of rules than traditional restaurants, and it’s more difficult for diners to monitor inspection results to see whether a truck has encountered problems.

The health district in Montgomery County, where most food trucks in the region are based, has since 2010 put bricks-and-mortar restaurant inspection reports on its website but doesn’t do the same for mobile food units. Those interested in reading those reports must make a trip to the health agency’s offices in downtown Dayton.

When asked why food-truck inspection reports are not made available online, Wentzel said the files are public and available for review in the agency’s offices. She added that her agency “is not the only one doing the inspections. We receive reports from other health departments, and those are also in (our) file. We also inspect mobile food units from other health department jurisdictions.”

Wentzel said there “is no plan in place at this time to post (food truck inspections) online.”

High stakes

Restaurant and food truck inspections are one line of defense against the types of food-borne illnesses that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sicken about one in six Americans each year. The CDC estimates that 48 million people, get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die each year of food-borne illnesses.

Several high-profile cases had strong Ohio connections. For example:

  • A salmonella outbreak in February 2016 at Lucky’s Taproom in Dayton’s Oregon District caused at least 26 confirmed cases of salmonella and prompted reports of as many as 88 illnesses. The cause was linked to unpasteurized eggs used in a house-made mayonnaise. The restaurant shut down for more than 10 days.
  • Earlier this year, a food-borne illness outbreak that involved a Dole processing plant in Springfield killed a Michigan man and sickened at least 19 people nationwide, and as many as 14 in Canada, according to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A lawsuit against Dole claims a second potential victim — a woman from the Columbus area — also died from the Listeria outbreak linked to the Springfield Dole plant. The outbreak was linked to salads produced at the Clark County facility.
  • In 2012, one person died and more than 70 others became ill after eating at a picnic in Germantown in southwest Montgomery County. The picnic’s host provided some of the food, but those attending also brought food as part of a potluck gathering, Montgomery County health officials said. The origin of the outbreak was never determined.
  • Chipotle Mexican Grill endured a series of food-borne illness outbreaks, including an outbreak of E.coli that began in the Pacific Northwest in October 2015 that sickened 53 people in nine states, including Ohio, where three diners got sick in Akron. Norovirus outbreaks in Boston and California sickened hundreds more, and Chipotle restaurants in Minnesota were implicated in an outbreak of salmonella earlier in 2015.

 

Health inspectors enforce the Ohio Uniform Food Safety Code at all food-service operations open to the public with an eye toward preventing such outbreaks. They test refrigeration equipment to ensure cold foods are remaining cold enough, and food holding areas to make sure cooked foods are kept at a temperature to thwart bacteria growth that could lead to or exacerbate food-borne illnesses. They make sure hot water is available for washing hands and dishes and a sufficient concentration of sanitizer is on hand to kill germs during dishwashing.

Each food truck is required to have its license renewed each year prior to March 1. All units must have hot and cold running water, commercial-grade equipment, mechanical refrigeration, and a hood vented to the outside if there are grease-producing foods, Wentzel said.

“Those are the minimum” requirements, she said.

‘We’re under a microscope’

Mike Buchanan, environmental health inspector for the health district, conducts most of these operational annual inspections. Although the food trucks are not making and serving food during these initial inspections, Buchanan said he conducts spot inspections of food trucks and other mobile food units on Dayton’s Courthouse Square at lunchtime and at events such as the Montgomery County Fair and the Dayton Celtic Festival.

Andrew Payne, founder and owner of Hunger Paynes food truck, worked in several bricks-and-mortar restaurants and country club kitchens prior to launching his mobile unit in 2013. Payne agrees with Wentzel that food-truck owners are scrutinized more often than restaurant kitchens.

“When we set up at some of the larger festivals, we can usually count on being inspected,” Payne said. “As a food truck owner, I expect to be inspected.”

Gary Scheckelhoff, president of the 26-member Dayton Food Truck Association, said his food truck, Horseless Buggy Eatery, is inspected two or three times a month in warm-weather months, when it attends rallies and festivals.

“In peak season, we’ve been inspected 10, 12, 15 times,” Scheckelhoff said. Bricks-and-mortar restaurants often are inspected twice a year, he said.

“We understand we’re under the microscope,” Scheckelhoff said.

‘Filthy’ conditions

An inspector from the Warren County Combined Health District found plenty to write about when he put a Montgomery County-based food truck — Jimmie’s Streatery, based on Brown Street in Dayton — under a microscope during the Lebanon Brew-Ha-Ha on April 23, 2016 in Lebanon.

The inspector used the word “filthy” to describe the food truck’s three-compartment sink, hand sink and cutting board, and used the word again to describe a sanitizing bucket with wash water and a wiping cloth. But in both cases, the inspector noted in her report that the violations were “corrected immediately.” She also wrote that a cutting board was “heavily scored and stained,” and the food truck did not have a working food thermometer or test strips to test sanitizing solution. She furnished the food trucks with some test strips.

Sue Brandell, who oversees Jimmie’s Streatery and was operating the truck at the Lebanon festival, responded to an inquiry via email.

“That event was the beginning of the season,” Brandell wrote. “The person running the truck led us to believe everything was ready. We parted ways, and things have since gone smoothly.”

A Montgomery County health district inspector checked the Jimmie’s Streatery truck on May 4 — less than two weeks after its Warren County inspection — and advised the owner to clean up grease that had spilled between two pieces of cooling equipment. No other violations were noted or described. But in all caps, the Montgomery County inspector advised the owner in his handwritten report’s narrative to, “KEEP THE TRUCK CLEAN!”

If that Jimmie’s Streatery inspection had occurred in the kitchens of a bricks-and-mortar restaurant in Montgomery County, the resulting report would have been viewable on the Public Health – Dayton & Montgomery County website. Because it happened on a food truck, however, it is not available online.

Higher standards urged

Wentzel said her office encourages food truck operators to undergo the “Level One Certification in Food Protection” training that is required of the “person in charge” of each shift at a bricks-and-mortar restaurant. The training provides instruction on proper food-handling techniques and guidelines.

“Currently, there is no state requirement for formal education training of mobile operators,” she said, adding, “We explain to them it is in their best interest for them to know what to expect during an inspection, and to know how to prepare food safely.”

Despite their encouragement, however, Wentzel and health officials estimated that less than half of mobile food unit operators have attended the class.

Both Scheckelhoff, the current Dayton Food Truck Association president, and Payne, who previously served as vice president, said the training is required for those food-truck operators who want to join the association. And the DFTA’s members have invited health officials to come to their meetings specifically to deliver the training.

Scheckelhoff suggested a change in state law so that safe-food-handling training is required for food truck operators as it is for restaurant kitchen supervisors.

“Anytime you’re dealing with food and dealing with the public, you need to be made aware of the right way and the wrong way to handle food,” he said. “I don’t see a problem with setting that standard for food trucks.”



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