The surge in popularity of 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 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.
Food truck operators’ knowledge of food safety also is tested as part of the pre-operational inspection, according to Jeff Agnew, environmental health director for Butler County Health Department.
“The questions will vary depending what type of food service operation it is and their food handling techniques,” Agnew told the Journal-News. “Typically, a pre-operational inspection will average 30 to 45 minutes.”
A Journal-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 Butler County Health Department puts brick-and-mortar restaurant inspection reports on its website but doesn’t do the same for mobile food units. Those interested in reading those public reports must make a trip to the health agency’s offices in downtown Hamilton.
When asked why food-truck inspection reports are not made available online, Agnew said reports for “mobile units and temporary food service operations are still being completed by hand.”
While he confirmed plans in the works to make them available online, “there is no projected timeline” for that to happen, Agnew said.
Mike Martin, founder and owner of Liberty Twp.-based East Coast Eatz food truck and owner/operator of several Cold Stone Creamery locations and a Cold Stone Creamery truck, said brick-and-mortar establishments undergo inspection once year, unless there’s a complaint.
Food trucks, however, are a different story as inspectors meet up with them at various venues to determine if state requirements are met. But Martin said the additional inspections are part of being a food truck.
“Brick and mortars are serviced by one county and that county knows them,” he said. “Typically, when trucks enter a visiting county they want to check them out to ensure what’s being served in their jurisdiction is up to par.”
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, 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, 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, officials said.
Agnew said there are no formal education requirements for food truck operators – i.e., attending a food safety class – as there are for restaurant operators or the person in charge at restaurants. His office provides food truck operators with “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.
However, there is no state requirement for formal education training of mobile operators, Agnew said. Once a food truck is licensed in one Ohio county, that license is essentially good for all Ohio counties
‘We get checked every week’
An inspector from the Butler County Health Department found much to write about when he checked out Logan County-based food truck Downs Concessions during the Butler County Fair on July 24 and 25.
The inspector noted ranch dressing at 47 degrees instead of 41 degrees, according to a standard inspection report. The unit was adjusted by the manager during inspection and the inspector added “Do not use if unable to keep foods at 41 degrees or below.”
In addition, utensils were observed standing in “stagnant water” between uses when they should have been stored in water of 135 degrees or under running water, if stored in water.
A July 25 inspection the next day noted critical violations involving the storage of raw chicken stored above raw beef in reach in a cooling unit when it should have stored “raw animal products in order of their required cooking temperatures to prevent contamination.”
In addition, an inspection noted batter for vegetables being left out on the counter between uses and ranch at 59 degrees when it should have been stored at 41 degrees or below. The ranch was voluntarily discarded, according to the report.
In all cases, the inspector noted the violations were corrected.
Travis Downs told the Journal-News that what the inspection reports fail to mention is that the summer heat had boosted temperatures within his brand-new $100,000-plus mobile concession trailers to 130 degrees and the vehicles being on blacktop didn’t help matters.
Downs, who has been in the food service industry since 1983 and owned his own business since 1992, said he contacted a refrigeration repair technician from STS Service in Dayton to come work on the truck and that the technician was on site before the inspection started.
“The guy got it fixed before he left,” Downs said. “The thing was up to temperature, running great. I’d done everything in my possibility to get it right and whatever the health department wanted me to do, I went along with it.”
Downs took umbrage with the assessment of his utensils and the storage of his raw chicken and beef.
He said inspections in each county often boil down to which person you get for each inspection. While health inspectors are required to follow the state’s minimum code, some decide to enforce matters beyond what is required for vendors coming in from outside a county, Downs said.
That’s what he believes occurred in this particular case.
“I’ve seen trailers out there so darn filthy that they shouldn’t even be open,” Downs said. “That they (inspectors) just walk in and walk out because they’re local.”
He said food trucks face far more scrutiny than brick-and-mortar restaurants.
“We get checked every week and at every event that we play,” he said.
BY THE NUMBERS
$1.2 billion: Estimated annual food truck revenue nationally.
4,130: Total number of food trucks in the U.S.
$290,556: Average annual revenue generated per food truck.
$12.40: Average spending per order at a food truck.
$85,000: Average cost of food truck, including equipment.
Source: Mobile Cuisine Magazine 2015 Food Truck Industry Statistics
FILING A COMPLAINT
Those who suspect they’ve been sickened by eating at a restaurant or food truck or have any other restaurant-related health complaint should contact their local health department.
Butler County residents can call the Butler County Health Department from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays at 513-863-1770 or visit www.butlercountyohio.org/health to write a complaint. They also can go to the agency’s office at 301 South Third St. in downtown Hamilton.
• To view online health inspection reports of restaurants and other brick-and-mortar food-service operations in Butler County, visit www.tinyurl.com/butlerfoodservice.
Warren County Combined Health District: 513-695-1228 or www.wcchd.com.
Hamilton County Public Health: 513-946-7800 or www.hamiltoncountyhealth.org
Preble County Public Health: 937-472-0087 or www.preblecountyhealth.org.
WHAT WE FOUND
The Journal-News examined nearly two years of inspection reports that most food truck customers may not even know exist because they are not posted online. The review found no serious, chronic violations or illnesses that health officials could trace back to dishes served by a food truck, but the operators of those trucks don’t have to undergo the same training as the managers of bricks-and-mortar restaurants, and the inaccessibility of the inspection reports makes it difficult for customers to find out whether a food truck has had safety issues.