The San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury issued a report, detailing its recommendations for food truck inspections in the County. The recommendation came after a recent study revealed a significantly sharp increase in food truck permits over the last few years. Grand jury Foreman, Bruce MacMillan told The Daily News that food trucks aren't inspected as rigorously or as frequently as brick and mortar restaurants, and their report recommends some changes.
MacMillan reassured the public that the review and report weren't the result of an increase in food poisoning incidents or inspection failures, but a proactive reaction to the increase in the food truck population on the streets in San Mateo County. "For the restaurants it's pretty rigorous, but unfortunately for the food trucks it's not as rigorous," MacMillan said. "It could be dangerous - and I emphasize could be - over the long term."
The examination and report come as no surprise, though. Earlier this year, San Diego County revamped its inspection standards for food trucks, and now requires that food trucks post inspection grades at all times.
San Francisco and Los Angeles have re-examined their health and safety inspection standards multiple times in the last two years, and news sources in Sacramento recently reported that nearly 60% of the food trucks operating in the county were cited during inspections, and that several couldn't pass repeated inspections, despite the fact that they were scheduled and announced.
At the end of 2011, there were 146 food trucks in operation in San Mateo County, a 46% increase, and nearly 3,800 restaurants, according to the report. Interestingly, the Grand Jury found that the number of food poisoning incidents between food trucks and brick and mortar restaurants is actually about the same. It's the increasing popularity of food trucks, combined with fewer and less rigorous inspections and an overall low reporting rate of food-related illnesses that concerns the Grand Jury.
A pale comparison to counties like San Diego, with 1,100 food trucks and Los Angeles County with a staggering 6,000 food trucks, MacMillan feels the time is right to examine inspection practices and standards, before the population explodes. "It's not only the number of food trucks that has increased fairly dramatically," MacMillan said, "But it's also a dramatic change in the cuisine that's been offered, so we wanted to take a look."
MacMillan pointed out that food trucks aren't the lunch trucks, serving prepackaged foods, like we remember. Today, most food trucks cook food to order on the truck, which has jurors concerned that inspectors aren't paying nearly enough attention to storage and handling of raw meats and the potential for contamination and food poisoning, as they should be.
"The San Mateo County Environmental Health Department .. routinely inspects restaurants during normal business hours when food storage, preparation, serving and cleaning conditions can be observed," the report states. "These inspections are unannounced, increasing the opportunity to see possible health code violations or poor practices."
While the Environmental Health Department has the element of surprise on its side for brick and mortar restaurants, the opposite is true for food trucks. Similar to other counties in the state, food truck's in San Mateo County are inspected annually, and by appointment. Surprisingly, only 60% of the food trucks in operation in San Mateo County have shown up for their scheduled inspection appointments, raising a few eyebrows of Grand Jury members.
Environmental Health Director, Dean Peterson made a public statement, acknowledging the Grand Jury's report, and claiming that the Department has been investigating the issue and its own report is forthcoming.
Bring it On
Despite the very low turn-out for announced, scheduled inspections, food truck owners aren't concerned about surprise inspections, and according to Matt Cohen, founder of the multi-location, weekly street food market in 13 locations around the Bay Area, Off the Grid, food truck owners are confident in their own high health and safety standards.
Cohen says that he believes there is a misconception which suggests that food trucks have slipped through legal loopholes, and that the owners don't want to be subjected to inspection.
"Most [food truck operators] are trying to drum up a loyal following and business through use of social media such as Twitter and Facebook. People know exactly where they are," Cohen said.
Food trucks aren't inspected as rigorously or as frequently as brick and mortar restaurants, and the Grand Jury has recommended that the Environmental Health Department consider appropriate inspection practices that align with this rapidly growing industry, before customers are subjected to dangerous conditions. However, since the Environmental Health Department isn't monitoring the social media channels, like Twitter and Facebook, and not conducting unannounced inspections, food truck tweets are a moot point.
What are your thoughts? The Grand Jury's report asserts that today's gourmet food trucks impose greater health risks than their construction site lunch truck predecessors, but are still held to the same antiquated standards. Some street food proponents argue that most food trucks in California are inspected more frequently than brick and mortar restaurants, because they routinely participate in events and festivals and must undergo inspection prior to serving food.
Regardless, there is no element of surprise - there are no unannounced inspections of food trucks and food stands, so does it really make a difference if a food truck is inspection 10 times per year or once?
Do you find it interesting that the construction site lunch trucks of yesteryear, serving pre-packaged foods donned the title of "roach coach," even though they typically do not handle any raw food on their trucks? Yet, gourmet food truck chefs store and prepare raw meat, and often compare themselves to the service and standards of brick and mortar restaurants, but don't have the inspection history to back it up.
Does it concern you that only 60% of the food trucks in San Mateo County have even shown up for their scheduled inspections? The San Mateo County Grand Jury's report certainly gives us food for thought. Weigh in with your thoughts in the comments.