Mobile food units and food safety

According to a televised story, one out of every three mobile food trucks in Houston has been slapped with a “serious” violation over the past year, according to analysis of city health records by the station.

Many of those trucks were able to correct the problem and are back up and running, but the finding shows how difficult it can be to properly maintain a portable restaurant. In fact, Houston health inspectors cited mobile food vendors more than 11,000 times over a three-year period – from September 2008 to September 2011. Most of those violations were minor – everything from messy countertops to missing paperwork.

But what the health department calls “serious violations include everything from roaches, to broken pipes, to leaky wastewater pipes. They usually resulted in temporary closures.

Mobile food vendors have to be inspected at least once a year and face surprise inspections at other times. The health department is trying new technology to ensure compliance. Blue tags track the trucks as they dump wastewater in designated spots every day. “Each tag has a unique signal so we can distinguish one mobile unit from another,” a supervisor with the health department said.

KHOU 11 News tagged along with an inspector during surprise visits to two trucks. Both were temporarily shut down. At a truck on Telephone Road, the operator didn’t have all the right paperwork, but inspector found bigger problems: food at off-temperature and water wasn’t hot enough. At another unit on Fondren, everything inside the unit was fine. But the inspector found a broken wastewater line outside.

Some customers thought the city was nit-picking. “It’s clean and the food’s always hot,” a customer said, adding that she saw no reason to shut the place down.

H-Town strEATS – one of the more popular higher-end trucks popping up all over Houston – racked up seven minor violations over the past year. But their customers rave about the fresh food and the creative menu. “We try to keep our truck clean because this is the face of our business,” said one of the owners.  The owners said they welcomed the scrutiny.

Other fans of mobile trucks point out that traditional restaurants – even fine-dining establishments—are cited for minor violations quite often, too.

Someone who calls himself “an intrepid foodie,” is writing a book about Houston’s top 100 food trucks. He urged Houstonians to explore the city’s emerging food truck scene – and take any minor health department citations with a grain of salt.

Is it worth taking a chance?

A mobile unit is just that! They don’t have the luxury of having needed amenities that a permanent food establishment does. Plumbing, electricity, waste-water infrastructure, refrigeration, cooking and hot holding facilities. Yes, they are all required to have these items but if they are, they are in a limited capacity. They are also known to take short cuts and neglect some of the most common food safety principles. I don’t think that all mobile food unit operators are non-compliant but majority of them are! If they operate as a “mobile” operation, and return to base operation on a daily basis to maintain the units, they can be safe to purchase and consume food from. If they don’t do that, you – as a customer – are taking a chance with your food items. And, as the book writer puts it – that grain of salt can become dangerous for you!


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