Tuesday, July 3, 2012

(San Mateo Co) Grand jury calls for more food truck oversight

By Michelle Durand - Daily Journal Staff

With food truck numbers swelling nearly 50 percent in the last two years, the county needs to step up its inspection of the mobile operations rather than risk them becoming a moving source of food-borne illnesses, according to the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury.

The jury’s report released Monday recommends the county’s Environmental Health division unexpectedly inspect each food truck before next February and do so under actual working conditions when food and beverages are present. The report also suggests Environmental Health revamp its website so that the public can more easily see if any specific food trucks have been cited for major violations.

“Food-born illness is a serious and preventable problem; no less attention than that given to restaurants should be given to the expanding world of food truck cuisine,” wrote Foreman Bruce E. MacMillan in a summary of the report “Food borne illness: A moving target” which looked at whether trucks received the same level of county oversight as fixed locations.

Actual reports of food-borne illness from food trucks are on par with restaurants but the low reporting of incidents make evaluating risk levels challenging, the civil grand jury found. The source can also be difficult to identify because symptoms can take up to 14 days to diagnose.

In 2010, three of the 177 reported food-borne illness cases were related to food trucks and, as of Dec. 15, 2011, there were 186 incidents of which two were food truck-related.

Environmental Health Director Dan Peterson said he and the Health System are “pleased” at the civil grand jury’s attention to an issue of which it is already aware and looking at. Peterson did not address the report’s specifics but said in a prepared statement the division looks forward to working with the Board of Supervisors on a more detailed response.

Civil grand jury reports carry no legal weight but recipients must respond in writing within 90 days.

By the end of last year, the county had 146 trucks operating in its borders compared to 3,745 restaurants, according to the civil grand jury which said this represents a 47 percent jump for the former and a 4 percent decline in the latter. As trucks have moved more upscale, too, the chance for contamination is greater because more raw meat cooked to order is offered than prepackaged foods.

However, the civil grand jury reported finding that environmental health inspectors routinely looked at trucks only during pre-arranged visits in which often food and beverages aren’t present and storage and preparation conditions can’t be observed. Of the 146 trucks, only roughly 60 percent even showed up for their scheduled 2012 inspections.

The Health Department claims difficulty in locating the trucks on their routes prevent unannounced inspections, according to the report.

The jury also concluded that trucks can operate for up to 60 days without an operator who has completed the food safety certification program or use designated commissaries for services like gray water and waste disposal.

The Board of Supervisors should direct the Environmental Health Department to advise food truck operators in January they will be fined for failing to appear at scheduled appointments and must report changes to route changes to allow unannounced inspections, the civil grand jury recommended.

The full civil grand jury report is available at www.sanmateocourt.org/grandjury.

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