Why They Pose a High Risk of Food Poisoning
What exactly is a catering truck? Although there are many not so complementary names or descriptions, they can best and simply be described as a restaurant kitchen on wheels, or in a more legal definition, a Mobile Food Preparation Facility.
A catering truck can cook, handle open food and perform other types of food preparation normally only a restaurant could legally do. They are different from ice cream and candy trucks, produce trucks, and ice cream carts and other carts that mostly sell only prepackaged foods and limited types of unpackaged foods.
Although a catering truck is not technically the same as a restaurant in the health and safety code, the requirements are almost the same as a permanent restaurant
I will probably get hate mail for this, but I would not recommend purchasing/eating any prepared or potentially hazardous foods from a catering truck or a street vendor, even an apparently licensed and safe one. The most I have purchased off a catering truck is prepackaged snacks or drinks.
And here are my reasons why:
They are inherently more dangerous than a permanent restaurant simply because of the limitations of space and power -gas or electricity- to keep the refrigerators and warming equipment up and running properly. There is a greater chance that food will be left too long in the food temperature danger zone -between 41 and 135 degrees Fahrenheit- thereby allowing bacteria to grow to dangerous levels.
–There are greater possibilities in a catering truck of cross contamination of your ready-to-eat food with raw meats, chicken etc., again due to limited space and overstocking.
–A catering truck has to maintain a storage tank of potable (drinkable) water available throughout the day while they are away from their commissary (where they store and re-supply their truck). This supply is limited versus a permanent restaurant’s water supply. This allows a greater probability that the catering truck will run out of water, or just as bad, the owner or operator limiting their use of it so it can last longer throughout the day. Both cases are not uncommon and this translates to not washing utensils, equipment, hands, etc., thoroughly or often enough.
–The inspector rarely spends the same amount of quality time inspecting a catering truck than a permanent restaurant. This is mainly due to time factors. Many catering trucks do not spend very long in any one place. An inspector has to get in, observe, test and take notes, get out, write up the report and then review it with the owner/operator and have them sign it before the catering truck leaves for the next stop. There are more pressures on everyone in this situation. It’s unfortunate, but this is the reality of this type of business.
–Lastly, the number of permit suspensions also do not reflect a pretty picture for catering trucks and street vendors. Permit suspension, for all types of food facilities, means an automatic closure and is almost always due to the presence of a high risk violation, such as severe temperature abuse, vermin etc., or operating without a valid public health permit.
For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2008, Los Angeles County Environmental Health Vehicle Inspection Program conducted 9,615 routine inspections of catering trucks and street vendors. The number of permit suspensions for this time period was 2,636 (the majority of which were catering trucks). The closure rate is 27%, meaning for every four inspections, one will result in a closure. This does not include illegal or not permitted trucks and carts, which are almost ubiquitous in Los Angeles County and are closed immediately when found.
To compare with restaurants: Los Angeles County Environmental Health Food Inspection Program conducted 46,978 routine inspections of restaurants for the same period. The number of suspended permits was 1,072. A closure rate of 2.3%.
The conclusion one has to make is that catering trucks, and other vehicles, carts etc., are more likely to be operating with a severe or high risk health code violation (resulting in the suspension and closure) than a restaurant. This translates into a greater risk of food poisoning or food-borne illness. Since most people do not report their food borne illness (this seems to especially apply to those that patronize trucks and carts), it is difficult to get a percentage of food borne illnesses directly related or attributed to trucks and carts. But based on what we know are the main causes and sources of food poisoning or food borne illness, one has to conclude that the risk of contracting such an illness is much higher from eating prepared foods off a catering truck than a restaurant.
If you still dare to tempt fate, here are some basic requirements of a catering truck and things to look out for as a customer. If you see any of these I strongly recommend that you think again about ordering something from this truck or cart.
–The business name or name of the operator, city, state, zip code must be legible, clearly visible to patrons, and permanently affixed to the customer side, and in most cases to both sides of the truck. If this basic information is missing, the vehicle is most likely operating illegally i.e., without a public health permit.
–A valid public health permit must be posted in a conspicuous place for you to see. Look for an expiration date and that the business name on the permit matches the name on the side of the truck. There may also be other identifying information on the permit such as the license plate. The posting of a valid permit from the local Environmental Health program in a conspicuous place actually applies to all retail food facilities including restaurants and markets in California and probably many, if not most states. It is more important to look out for with a catering truck or street vendor because there is a much greater likelihood of these types of mobile businesses operating illegally, or without a permit, than a permanent restaurant or market.
–No liquid wastes or water can be leaking or draining onto any street, sidewalk or premises.
–All food condiments or any food offered for customer self-service must be protected from all types of contamination, such as people sneezing, coughing, as well as bugs, dust or any possible overhead contamination.
–No food or drinks made or prepared at home or any other unapproved, unlicensed sources, can be sold to the public from any vehicle. (This also applies to all restaurants, catering trucks, and food markets.)
–If the catering truck is conducting business for more than one hour in the same location, there must be an approved and readily available toilet and handwashing facility for the catering truck staff. It can not be a home or house, but a publicly accessible and/or department approved facility.
–All food operators must also follow the same requirements regarding good health and hygiene, just as if they were working in a restaurant kitchen.
–The vehicle must, of course, be free of all vermin, including flies and live animals at all times.
–All windows and doors must be in good repair and be provided with screens or flaps to prevent the entrance of flies. Pass through windows should be covered when not in use and self-closing screens are required on the exterior of pass though openings.
The vehicle should be in good working and structural condition. It should not be broken down, such as a flat tire, where it is now no longer mobile and cannot readily make it back to its commissary. A broken down condition by itself may not be a violation or risk, but the problem lies in that fact that that the vehicle has limited power and/or gas and can not maintain potentially hazardous food indefinitely at the proper temperatures.
Michael Doom has worked as a Environmental Health Specialist for more than 20 years. He has conducted thousands of inspections and educated more than a thousand, food facility owners, managers and employees on food safety, and how to prevent food poisoning hazards.