Drive around the Playa Vista area of Los Angeles during lunchtime and see countless food trucks offering a wide variety of cuisines to throngs outside area businesses. On a typical day, workers can choose from sushi burritos, lobster quesadillas, gourmet sliders, vegetarian pupusas, Texas smokehouse chili or other options that rolled up to that area, mid-Wilshire, other sections of L.A. or comparable areas in other cities that attract rolling caravans of quick cuisine for lunch or dinner crowds. As the options proliferate, a Los Angeles Times article and others question the safety of food truck meals and their sanitation, citing some government statistics.
The Times article picked up by other media stated that nearly 30 percent of Los Angeles food trucks do not receive an “A” grade in inspections and face sanitation problems. This seems like scare tactics and misleading. The article lumps all truck operators in the same category, but they can be run very differently. However, people do need to be aware of whether the truck seems clean and well run just as they would for any other dining establishment frequented (a grade of B or less on a restaurant or a food truck should be considered in choosing that dining establishment).
The old, standard (usually white) food trucks, long nicknamed “roach coaches,” have been serving breakfast and lunch for years at blue-collar workplaces, such as construction sites and factories. Most of those offer prepackaged sandwiches, snacks, drinks and more. But they bear little resemblance to the high-end pop-up restaurants on wheels that prepare meals found now in more upscale areas.
The early ones generally offered convenience for less. The newer trendy mobile food vendors offer restaurant fare for less money than a sit-down meal and augment options for quick lunches in areas with limited restaurants (often do to high rents in the area). As New York magazine noted today’s food truck has “transcended its roach-coach classification and is now a respectable venue for aspiring chefs to launch careers.”
So, what about food safety? Food trucks nationally are supposed to be licensed to operate and inspected by local health departments, just like any restaurant. In Los Angeles County, health inspection process is similar for restaurants, food trucks and carts that sell food. Points are deducted for major and minor violations. Given the 100-point scale, only 10 points can be lost before falling below an “A” grade.
Some food trucks that make meals to order admittedly face challenges meeting sanitation standards. Workers operate in a confined space with limited equipment or ability to thoroughly clean up between orders. The setting is ripe for cross-contamination, but many trucks avoid that with pre-prep and a limited menu. The Times reported that 4 percent of food trucks inspected year-to-date were pulled off the streets for having too many problems when inspectors came.
It is only natural, as the number of food trucks showing up at special events and key neighborhoods through the country proliferate, that some questions about food safety arise. Just remember, like brick-and-mortar dining places, some food trucks are better bets than others. Newer, well-maintained trucks would presumably score higher than older ones operating for decades, but staff cleanliness and food handling can be an issue anywhere (ask Chipotle!) L.A. and many other jurisdictions require inspection results to be posted. Check out the report card, look in the truck and, with social media able to spread the word about trucks with issues, reputation online, then get in line for lunch.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
Los Angeles Times: Nearly 30 percent of Los Angeles food trucks face sanitation problems, report finds
Food Safety News: Food Safety on Food Trucks Called ‘A Little More of a Challenge’
CNN: Are food trucks safe?
Southern California Food Vendors Association posts
New York Magazine: Intentionally Temporary
Photo courtesy Ricardo Diaz’ Flickr Page – Creative Commons license