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Food truck safety: Looking beyond the menu

Food trucks are major draws for foodies across the Southland. Here are some guidelines to choosing your food trucks wisely.
November 6, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
Food trucks are major draws for foodies across the Southland. Here are some guidelines to choosing your food trucks wisely.

A cold fridge, hot grill and top-notch worker hygiene are all characteristics that would add up to an "A" grade for a restaurant. But are consumers on their own when it comes to food trucks?

"What you need to know is that they need to operate under the same premise as a restaurant," said Bill Flynn, a food inspector and restaurant trainer. "Hot food hot, cold food cold, proper sanitizing and proper hand sinks and temperature controls."

What you can't see can hurt you. So here's what you should look for the next time you get hungry for some food truck eats.

First thing, look for the letter grade. It should be posted, but if it's not, it's possible the truck is certified in a different county, so just ask.

Also, check for these as well: health permits and business licenses - both should be visible. You can even check out vehicle registration tags, which indicate good operating practices.

"There's an old expression: 'When you go into a restaurant, check out the restroom first.' It might be an indication of what's inside," Flynn said.

Since you can't do that with a food truck, be observant in other ways.

"What is the hygiene of the employees look like? Are they wearing a hair net?" Flynn said.

If you see greasy hair or dirty fingernails, look for another lunch spot. You might think you're more likely to get sick from undercooked food, but you're actually more likely to get sick from food borne illness due to bad employee hygiene.

If they're handling raw chicken, pork or beef - they should be wearing gloves although it is not a law to do so.

Jennifer Hoover of Newport Beach is a big food truck fan. She often hits Gateway to LA's Tuesday truck fests. She says she relies mostly on word of mouth or website recommendations.

"I'm still here, and I haven't been sick," Hoover said.

Along with eyeballing permits and food operator behavior, feel your food. It should be hot. Proper cooking techniques kill bacteria.

Some foods are more risky than others, simply because the way they're prepared. For example, brownies or corn on the cob are pretty safe. If they're plunged in fats or oils, that's pretty safe as well.

However, when it comes to burgers, tacos and salads, you might be rolling the dice.

"These are foods that don't have another step of cooking, so to speak. Your lettuce, your salad, your tacos and the garnishes on those tacos, if they were contaminated at the source, they could be contaminated when you eat them," Flynn explained. "Cross contamination is a big deal."

That's not to say that you need to avoid taco trucks. Just be armed with the right information to see that they handle these items properly.

Flynn checked White Rabbit, a Filipino fusion truck, and the Wicked Kitchen truck, which serves everything from Thai to Vietnamese to Cajun. Both passed food safety criteria, but that doesn't surprise Wicked's Ryan Carlin, who says health inspectors are rigorous.

"They are pretty harsh. They want to really nail us wherever we go," Carlin said.

Carlin says trucks need permits for every city they work in.

In Los Angeles County, trucks are inspected twice a year. Sometimes they're scheduled, sometimes they're random. This year, the L.A. County Health Department inspected 1,429 trucks. Out of those, 1,250 got As, 132 received Bs, and 47 trucks got Cs.

Carlin says his Wicked Kitchen truck is cleaned after each meal service and also at night at their commissary - something Flynn says is vital.

"These trucks don't sit in people's garages overnight," Flynn said.

If you find a truck through Twitter or a website, you can check out how established they are. That way, you can gauge how safe they are.

"One of the problems in public health with these types of vehicles is they're mobile. Here today, gone tomorrow," Flynn said.

There's more to truck food than a mouth watering menu. So look out for a few red flags to help you from getting sick.

"I've done this now for a couple months, and so far so good. Knock on wood," Hoover said.

For additional information regarding truck food safety, visit www.publichealth.lacounty.gov.


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