How safe is your truck’s food?

| by Elliot Maras
How safe is your truck’s food?

How safe is the food you serve your customers? Food Truck Operator wants to know, and invites readers to fill out a short online survey. To take the survey, click here.

In the interest of measuring food truck safety practices, Food Truck Operator developed a short list of questions. The questionnaire asks food truck and trailer owners where they prepare most of their food, whether they access inspection materials from inspection agencies, what type of food safety training they provide, what type(s) of safety precautions food preparers take, and what measures are taken to prevent cross contamination on the truck or the trailer.

The purpose of the survey is to provide some indication of the food safety measures food trucks and trailers are following.

Performance to date inconclusive

Gourmet food trucks have long prided themselves on their safe practices. Today's generation of fast casual "restaurants on wheels" see themselves as purveyors of high quality, safe food.

But the reality may not be that simple. In researching food trucks' food safety performance, Food Truck Operator found that nationwide data on food safety violations for food trucks is not yet readily available. Food trucks and trailers are regulated by thousands of state and local health departments. 

Street Eats, Safe Eats, a project of the Institute for Justice, reviewed more than 260,000 food-safety inspection reports in 2014 from seven large American cities, according to an Institute for Justice report. In each of these cities, mobile food vendors were covered by the same health codes and inspection regimes as brick-and-mortar restaurants, allowing an apples-to-apples comparison. The Institute for Justice is a non-profit, libertarian public interest law firm that often defends food trucks against excessive regulation.

Street Eats, Safe Eats found that in every city examined—Boston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Louisville, Miami, Seattle and Washington, D.C.—food trucks and carts did as well as or better than restaurants.

In six out of seven cities – Boston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Louisville, Miami and Washington, D.C., food trucks and carts averaged fewer sanitation violations than brick-and-mortar restaurants, and the differences were statistically significant. In Seattle, mobile food vendors also averaged fewer violations, but the difference was not statistically significant, meaning mobile vendors and restaurants performed about the same.

Studies' results vary

While the Street Eats, Safe Eats research indicated food trucks are performing well on the food safety front, there have been other studies to indicate otherwise.

A 2014 report by the environmental health services branch of the Centers for Disease Control examined the food and water safety, sanitation knowledge and food handling practices of California food trucks. Out of 95 food trucks assessed, 90 exhibited at least one critical risk factor, indicating the trucks exhibit attributes comparable to fixed food facilities.

These risk factors included improper or no hand washing, refrigeration units not operating, refrigeration ambient temperatures above 45 degrees Fahrenheit, internal food temperature greater than 41 degrees Fahrenheit, cross contamination with ready-to-eat foods, and inadequate sanitation solution for sanitizing surfaces.

A 2016 report by The Los Angeles Times found that around 27 percent of Los Angeles food trucks earned lower than A inspection grades over the prior two years, based on a review of Los Angeles County department of public health data. Slightly less than 5 percent of brick-and-mortar restaurants and close to 18 percent of food carts fell below that mark.

More than 4 percent of food trucks inspected in 2016 were forced to close, which was three times the rate of regular restaurants. The department closed more than 70 trucks, most of which were allowed to reopen following follow-up inspections. 

According to a June 2017 article in The Boston Globe, food trucks were more likely than brick-and-mortar restaurants to be shut down for serious violations over failure to provide running water. The article noted that food trucks were less likely overall to have violations than brick-and-mortar restaurants, but more likely to be suspended for serious issues that provide an "imminent public health threat," such as not having running water.

Hand washing critical

In a small space, washing takes on more importance because bad bacteria can spread more quickly, according to Doug Powell, a former professor of food safety at Kansas State University, writing in a food safety blog called barfblog. Cutting surfaces on the trucks are used for a variety of tasks, he said, and workers who serve food might also handle money while preparing food.

Food trucks are not connected directly to a city’s water supply and rely instead on a water tank connected to a sink, similar to a boat or airplane, according to Powell. Water can easily run out, and finding places to refill can be challenging, so workers can be tempted to cut corners to conserve it.

Water and hand-washing are fundamental to keeping harmful bacteria at bay in any food establishment, but even more critical on a food truck.

As food trucks and trailers continue to increase nationwide, the public is naturally going to become more concerned about safe operating practices. As concern increases, look for regulatory agencies to become more aggressive in inspecting food trucks, and for local media to become more attentive to food safety concerns.

Food Truck Operator will report the results of the survey this fall.

Topics: Food & Beverage, Food Safety, Independent Operators, Inspections

Elliot Maras
Elliot Maras is the editor of and

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