Feature story: Which way did the food trucks go?

Grand Jury recommends random inspections, but inspectors say trucks hard to find

Click on photos to enlarge and see captions.

By Elena Kadvany

Special to the Almanac

Coca-Cola braised pork steamed buns? Check. Chicken tikka masala burrito? Check. Refrigeration, potable water, clean food practices in food trucks? Not officially checked yet, according to the San Mateo County Grand Jury.

According to "Food-Borne Illness: A Moving Target," a grand jury report released July 2, the food truck business needs to be more strictly monitored by the county's Environmental Health Division.

The report was not spurred by a specific incident or an alarming number of foodborne illness complaints. The number of complaints in the past five years in San Mateo County is actually about the same for food trucks as restaurants, according to the report. In 2010, three of 177 reported incidents were food-truck related. Last year, two of 186 were.

Instead, the growing popularity of food trucks drew the grand jury's attention. "This is a new way of presenting food, its welcome, some of it is really fantastic and we just wanted to be sure that we're doing what we should as the county to protect all of us," said grand jury foreman Bruce MacMillan.

"We wanted to make sure that they're regulated, if you will, in a way that maintains public health standards. We take a longer view of what should happen and what should change."

At the heart of the report's recommendations is a desire to make sure the rising popularity of food trucks as a dining option is matched by an inspection process equivalent to the level of inspection at brick and mortar restaurants.

Checking the box

Currently, the food truck inspection process in San Mateo County works like this, according to the report: Food truck operators apply for a permit and meet certain requirements. They must show proof that they have already completed food safety certification training or will do so within 60 days after their permit has been issued.

They also must register with a commissary, a designated facility where trucks can park, clean their facilities, discharge waste, and use other services. Food truck operators are required to return to their commissary at the end of each day, but not all of them do so.

This makes the inspection process more difficult, said Mr. MacMillan.

Food trucks also go through an initial inspection by the county, the report said, but at this early point there's typically no food or hygiene to inspect, as operations have not officially begun.

Once in operation, food trucks are required to go through an annual permit and inspection process every February. Even at this point, no food handling or preparation takes place during the review.

"They can ask, does it have proper refrigeration? Yes. Does it have potable water? Yes. Does it have the number of sanitary supplies that it should? Yes. It's kind of a box-checking exercise," said Mr. MacMillan.

And this year, he added, only 60 percent of the county's 146 licensed food trucks showed up for their annual inspection.

To the grand jury, this means that action needs to be taken now to improve the process. The report proposes that food truck inspections be more like those at restaurants, where inspectors show up unannounced to observe food handling practices. It also suggests that major violations, both restaurant and food truck related, should be posted on the Environmental Health Division's website so the public is better informed about the food they're eating.

"We have no reason to believe that food trucks aren't operating at a very high standard now. They very well may be," Mr. MacMillan said. He added that the truck operators are more than willing to be inspected. "It's good not only for the general public, but also for the food truck business."

San Diego County has the same idea. Although it also reports low rates of foodborne illness related to trucks, according to county staff, it recently passed an ordinance requiring all 1,100 of its registered food trucks to display the same health inspection letter grades as restaurants via a decal in the front window. The new law, passed July 11, takes effect in September. The county is also working on a computerized truck mapping system to make unannounced inspections easier. As trucks start serving more complex items like those on a restaurant menu, the risk of illness increases, county communications officer Gig Conaughton said.

Follow the tweets

In San Mateo County, restaurants have to pass random inspections, unlike food trucks. The grand jury report states that inspectors say it's too time-consuming to find the trucks for unannounced inspections, and recommends that the county require notice of route changes.

Due to their mobile nature, food trucks rely on keeping customers updated about their current location via Twitter and Facebook posts. For example, on June 25, popular food truck "Mama's Empanadas" sent out a Twitter blast: "Yum food trucks tonight at SanMateo #Caltrain Lot, w our fav @chairmantruck! @curryupnow @HapaSF @MamasEmpanadasSF @hiyaaaroll @PolloFrittoSF"

Another truck, An the Go (which frequents Edgewood Eats at Edgewood Plaza in Palo Alto), posts its weekly schedule on both Twitter and Facebook, as do other trucks.

"We have grappled with this conundrum for many years," said Dean Peterson, the county's director of environmental health. "Social media and food truck specific events have helped, however, only a small fraction of the trucks regularly utilize social media to announce their locations, and even then we have found those to not to be fully reliable."

The food trucks of today are different from those on the streets 10, even five, years ago. They are cooking up increasingly exotic cuisine that requires on-site cooking rather than prior preparation. Whereas Mr. MacMillan said he sees this as a cause for concern, Christina Galletti, owner and operator of "Mama's Empanadas," said that the "the stereotype of a roach coach" food truck is a thing of the past.

"We're more professional, cleaner," she said.

Ms. Galletti also said that San Mateo County already does a thorough job monitoring the food safety of her truck. "I know I've been inspected numerous times, week after week at events like Moveable Feast and Off the Grid. They tend to be real good about being at those kind of events," she said.

She said that she sometimes receives notice ahead of time from the county that inspectors will be at the events.

When asked about this practice, Mr. MacMillan said that he "honestly wasn't aware" of this as a regular occurrence. "There may have been a decision at some point to do an operating inspection, but it's uncommon and it's not required."

Yet Ms. Galletti says that it is specifically at these kind of events -- large food trucks meet-ups at local parking lots or venues, such as Food Truck Night at the Willows Market in Menlo Park or Edgewood Eats at Edgewood Plaza in Palo Alto -- that she is regularly inspected and reminded of safe food practices.

She added that San Mateo County checks her truck more often than San Francisco, which conducts inspections twice a year.

Santa Clara County, with 387 food trucks under permit (up from 282 two years ago), also conducts bi-annual inspections, said Department of Environmental Health director Heather Forshey, and has had zero reports of foodborne illnesses related to food trucks.

The first inspection approves or renews the permit, and takes place at the county's facilities. The second inspection takes place in the field.

"Sometimes it's easy when they have these formal events where a number of trucks get together and they publicize it," Ms. Forshey said. "But there are often trucks that don't have a set schedule that is published and it can be challenging for any health department to find them out in the field."

For the trucks that do publish their schedules online, she said Santa Clara is looking into using social media such as Twitter to locate trucks for random, unannounced inspections. "We're always looking for new ways to identify their locations. Social media is another way of doing that."

San Mateo County is working on its response to the grand jury report. "We're very pleased the Grand Jury is calling attention to this important issue that the Health System has been aware of and has been looking into," Mr. Peterson said. "We look forward to working with the Board of Supervisors to provide a more detailed response to the specific ideas in the Grand Jury Report."

■ Food trucks in Portola Valley: 'I'm spanking clean'

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Like this comment
Posted by Foodie
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jul 19, 2012 at 8:16 am

The county complains the problem for inspections is not knowing where the trucks are.
Simple solution. In order to get their permits require a GPS locator and make the trucks pay for the locator service. Then all the inspectors have to do is log onto their computer and behold up pops the food truck's location.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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