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How California food trucks keep food safe

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Food trucks are popping up all over, and vendors in large cities are forming associations that give them leverage for dealing with local officials and regulations. Matt Geller is CEO of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association, which formed in 2010 and has about 150 food-truck operators. Geller, who has restaurant management experience and a law degree, says food safety is a critical issue for these entrepreneurs.

How important is food safety and how does SCMFVA get involved? 

Food safety is No. 1. I think everybody in this industry understands that. The industry was looked at in a particular way for a long time; the cultural term of “roach coach” was used to look down upon food trucks so one of the things we really have taken an interest in is the food safety aspect.

What are the key regulations governing food truck safety? 

In 2007, we adopted the California Retail Food Code, and much of what restaurants are obligated to do, they mirror that for the food trucks.  When the county of Los Angeles was trying to figure out a way to pass a grading ordinance — we have a grading ordinance for restaurants — we supported it 100%.  The Health Department has told us that since it started grading trucks, the trucks have had a higher percentage of A’s than restaurants did when they first started grading restaurants so we’re really happy about that.

How often are trucks inspected?

Most trucks in our membership have a Los Angeles County health permit so they have to get inspected twice a year by the Health Department.  Many will also want to do business in Pasadena or Long Beach, which are cities that have taken the responsibility away from the county and have their own health departments.  So they’ll have to get two inspections for either one of those. We do a lot of festivals so any time there is a special event permit, inspectors will come out and they will randomly grab trucks. So mobility doesn’t mean they are inspected less, it usually means they are inspected more.

What is one challenge in keeping food safe? 

The refrigerators are typically smaller. When they are at a festival, much like a restaurant has to open and close its fridge multiple times; there is concern about keeping the temperature below 41 degrees. Some of the great new technology I’ve seen to address this is temperature receivers, like RFID tags. If you don’t happen to be on your food truck and your refrigerator gets over 41 degrees, then your smartphone can be dinged to let you know there is a problem. 

What about preparing large amounts of food?

I really believe there should be an easy way for trucks to use commercial or incubator kitchens. In San Francisco County you can rent at La Cocina, which is an incubator kitchen.  Los Angeles County isn’t allowing that because of issues of accountability. They don’t feel comfortable allowing somebody to come into a commercial kitchen space and use that person’s permit to do their prep. So we’re trying to work out something in the middle.

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