Show me the grade: Food trucks in San Diego may soon be posting inspection scores

The temperature reached 80F in Raleigh yesterday (that’s almost 27C for the metric crowd) flowers are blooming and I feel like eating hot dogs. It stems from some weird memory from my youth – my parents always grilled hot dogs as the first outdoor meal of the year (my dad wasn’t into cold-weather grilling, or bbqing as it is called in Southern Ontario).

The family and I are on our way to Myrtle Beach this afternoon for the NC Meat Processors Association Educational Seminar so I’m not going to be able to grill up some dogs here at home — but as a fan of street meat, maybe we’ll grab some hot dogs on the way.

In North Carolina mobile food units (hot dog carts, taco trucks etc.) are inspected, are required to have an agreement with a commercial kitchen (usually a restaurant) for storage, refrigeration and for water source (for hand washing and disposal of gray water). But they aren’t currently required to post an inspection grade card.

In San Diego, where more than 1,100 mobile food vendors sell meals to folks on the street, there is a proposal to require food trucks to post inspection grade cards.

Supervisor Ron Roberts said the time for change is now.

"We all want A’s just like in school. This type of consumer awareness really creates incentives for the restaurants to make sure that they maintain the most sanitary conditions and the best conditions for public health," he said.
Roberts said when it comes to grading food safety it shouldn’t matter where you get your food from — you just need to know its been stored and prepared properly.

San Diego was the first county in California to grade restaurants on issues related to health in the 1950s. Now Chairman Roberts wants to apply the A,B,C’s to mobile food carts.

"An inspection report is kind of a complex thing, this really correlates to the inspection report and gives the public confidence that the system is serving them," he said.

"It’s food safety, that’s the key here," said Jack Miller, director of the Department of Environmental Health.
Miller oversees about 1,300 inspections a year of mobile food trucks in San Diego county. He said it’s important the refrigeration system is working properly — to avoid food borne illnesses. "Keeping food temperatures right, if there’s hot foods being held, they need to be kept at the right temperature," Miller said.
Roberts proposal is mainly designed for those who cook and prepare food on the trucks, not those who sell mostly pre-packaged items.

Mike Morton knows all about the grading system. He’s president of the California Restaurant Association, San Diego Chapter.
"Ultimately we’re all serving meals to the public and I think we should all be regulated by the same bodies to insure for safety for all of our guests," Morton said.

I’m a fan of posting grades, regardless of the type of food business. While grades represent a snapshot, and don’t correlate well with outbreaks, they create dialogue and can lead to greater public discussion.

Is street meat safe to eat?

During my undergraduate days in Canada I tended to grab a bite after hitting the town. Though I rarely do it now (BK burgers just aren’t made with the same care at 3am), I do recall scarfing down hotdogs from street vendors during the wee hours of the morning.

But is street meat, or any other food prepared on wheels, safe, asks the Hudson Reporter.

[S]hould customers trust food that’s stored and cooked in what’s essentially an old truck? Is the food kept in a cold – really cold – refrigerator? Is the food cooked at a temperature that will kill any bacteria in the meat? And how do the cooks wash their hands and utensils?

Alex Fernandez, a California native who sells south-western cuisine from a food truck in Jersey City, said,

“You wouldn’t believe the laws we have to follow. It’s more [regulated] than you think. It’s just like a restaurant. No different. We’re just on the sidewalk.”

Frank Sasso, health officer for Hoboken, where there are 33 food cart and food truck licenses, said,

“Both food trucks and food carts, which are generally hot dog stands, must have a stent thermometer to check the temperature of cooked foods…”

Vendors must also have a way to clean their hands. Food carts are required to have some type of hand sanitizer, but are not required to have water available for hand washing. Food trucks, as opposed to carts, are required to have a source of water for hand washing, although the water isn’t required to be hot. Carts must also have hand sanitizer in addition to the water.

Sasso noted that most food poisoning – from restaurants, supermarkets, home kitchens, and elsewhere – generally stems from improper storage or cooking temperatures.

Carts or trucks are annually inspected by the local health department.

What’s going to happen when things get a little more complicated?

The National Post reports today that 4 out of 10 "street meat" stands inspected this year failed to meet city health standards.
Jim Chan, a manager of food safety with Toronto Public Health, told the National Post that out of 68 carts tested this year, only 41 have been given the green pass from the city’s Dine-Safe program.
"Twenty-six of them received a conditional pass [and] one received a red card, which is a closure."
With Toronto allowing more than just hot dogs and sausages to be sold on the street next year, the story notes that stringent rules will be put in place to make sure Torontonians stay healthy: this includes carts require mechanical cooling, an increase in the number of inspections per year, and requiring not only a separate handwash basin with running hot and cold water, but an additional sink for washing utensils.