Lack of food truck safety inspectors leads to risky tacos

32

It is nice to think that food is safe, the people who cook it are meticulous and the ingredients are high quality. Presuming that food will not induce a stomach-ache is easy. Although it hurts the stomach to digest or throw up bad food, it hurts the soul to doubt a taco from a taco truck. However, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LACDPH) falls short of making sure that a vendor serving a customer a hot dog or a taco is not also serving them food poisoning.

Everyone deserves to know that their food is safe. Although the LACDPH is supposed to carry out multiple inspections on each truck every year, 40 percent have never been inspected in the three years since L.A. implemented a letter grade system for assessing food vendors, including restaurants and food trucks, according to a Los Angeles Times article. Restaurants that are up to code receive a grade, AC, from an inspector depending on their assessed level of risk. Otherwise, they are shut down. The article cites the story of a real-life couple, the Cohens, who got food poisoning from a hot dog truck. Though it should have been inspected six times in its three years of operation, the truck was not inspected at all.

Food trucks are overlooked because there are not enough inspectors employed by the LACDPH to assess every vendor, even though the department’s chief function is to prevent food vendors from spreading illness. The LACDPH should be held responsible for enforcing proper food preparation by food trucks. The solution is simple: Hire more inspectors to make sure that people do not get food poisoning.

While I want to avoid making generalizations about the reliability of food trucks and their proprietors, in any industry there are going to be people who are not as well-trained or whose equipment is not as dependable. Little distinguishes a food truck from any other restaurant except size and mobility. Although their mobility poses a challenge when it comes to locating food trucks for inspection, the LACDPH has been slacking by allowing 40 percent to go without inspection for three years. Food trucks must be subject to the same safety rules as restaurants, or even stricter ones, since they prepare a high volume of food in such a small space. Meat, vegetables and other perishable food items can turn bad, whether in a food truck or a restaurant.

Of L.A.’s fleet of thousands of food trucks, the L.A. Times article focuses on the roughly 3,200 that are designated moderate to high-risk because they prepare raw food. Understandably, the article leaves out purveyors of less risky foods like pre-packaged ice creams. The more risky trucks serve countless people every day and are undeniably a staple of L.A.’s culture. When the LACDPH does not enforce safe food preparation, many pass food-borne illnesses to customers. This is evidenced by a sampling of patrons who shared stories of getting food poisoning from food trucks on an April 8 KPCC broadcast. The loyalty that L.A. residents show to food trucks mandates that food trucks maintain a high quality of food production. It would be sad if the only food that could be trusted was the processed and packaged Twinkie.

An inspection ensures that food trucks are held accountable for many precautions, including that everyone working at the food truck has had a course in food safety, that proper techniques are being taken to cook raw food and that the kitchen tools are clean. Safe cooking depends on basics like these. If one of them goes wrong, then a person who does not know the minimum temperature at which to cook meat can end up making a taco or a sauce that contains traces of yesterday’s meal. It is the responsibility of the LACDPH to ensure that all purveyors of food are meticulous in their preparation.

Beneath this surface problem is the issue that information about food trucks from the LACDPH is not reliably available to the public. Since many food trucks are not being inspected, there is a lack of information to begin with, but the Cohens found that even the information that has been collected is difficult to use. None of the standard methods of inquiry, such as checking the LACDPH website, calling or emailing, can guarantee that a concerned patron will find information about whether or not a food truck has been inspected and, if it has, what letter grade was received. Consequently, there is no reliable way to search for the safety history of a food truck. This is also a problem that could be solved by simply employing someone to organize the information on food trucks that health inspectors collect.

There is a clear, polarized debate in the comments responding to the L.A. Times article and the subsequent story by KPCC. On one side, food truck lovers accept the risk of patronizing food trucks. Some argue that food trucks are simply worth the risk and some go further to criticize the attempt to regulate them at all, saying that it is up to the customer to approve of the way a truck prepares its food. The other side makes a point that better serves the interests of food truck patrons: Proprietors need to respect the people they serve by providing safe food.

A professional vendor enters into an understanding with customers that his or her product will not make them ill. Although people are generally aware that buying from food trucks may be risky, that assumption undermines the customer-vendor understanding. Food vendors must be accountable for the quality of their product, therefore the LACDPH must enforce quality of production. Since the problem appears to be that the department lacks resources and organization, then it must hire more people, including some to make sure that information about the safety of food trucks is available.

Lena Smith is a sophomore Group Languages major. She can be reached at lenasmith@oxy.edu or on Twitter @WklyLSmith.