Food trucks are rolling through every big city and many small towns across the country. There will be a dozen or so this year at MontanaFair, selling everything from pulled pork and jambalaya to donuts and ice cream.
Food trucks face unique health and safety issues because of their small size and because they are always on the move. Food must be stored, prepared and served in a confined space, which creates a higher risk for cross contamination. The confined space also limits how many people can be in the “kitchen” at one time. The person who handles your cash may be the same one who handles raw foods and serves cooked food. In addition, food truck operators have to be sure their water tank is filled, they have a power source at all times and they can operate in extreme weather conditions.
You might wonder whether it’s safe to grab a bite from a truck that’s a fraction of the size of your kitchen. The answer may surprise you. Food trucks are required to follow the same strict guidelines and undergo the same inspections as restaurants. And like restaurants, some have better food safety practices than others. During large events, like MontanaFair, inspectors are on the fairgrounds each day to conduct food safety checks.
Here’s how to conduct your own food safety checks to reduce your risk of getting sick:
Licensing: If a food truck operator can’t show you a license, find another place to eat. Illegal operators tend not to follow rules about food temperatures and sanitation.
Inspection history: For food trucks based in Yellowstone County, you can find summaries of past inspection results on RiverStone Health’s website. Search for the food truck by name to see the number of violations cited at recent inspections. A pattern of multiple violations at every inspection could indicate poor food safety practices.
Does it look clean and tidy? Look at the truck’s overall cleanliness. Is there a sink for employees to wash their hands? Are dirty dishes piled up near the area where food is prepared? Is the area free of flies and other insects?
Employee hygiene: You may think your biggest worry is undercooked meat, but you’re more likely to get sick from employees not washing their hands. Customers should also remember to wash their hands before eating.
Glove use: Gloves may give you the impression of safe food handling, but don’t be fooled. They provide no protection unless the employee changes gloves between tasks and washes hands between glove changes.
Food temperature: Temperature problems are one of the most common violations among food trucks. Burgers and other cooked foods should be piping hot when served. Salads and deli sandwiches should feel like they’re straight out of the fridge.
If you think you became sick from eating food at a food truck, report it to your local health department. A pattern of calls may signal a potential outbreak. In Yellowstone County, you may call RiverStone Health at 256-2770.