How to avoid illness from a food truck

How to avoid illness from a food truck

The convenience of curbside service makes food trucks a popular lunchtime option.  But how safe are they to eat from? No one wants a side order of food poisoning with their lobster roll.

The good news is current government data shows that food truck cuisine is just as safe to eat as food from walk-in restaurants. That said, it’s important to be observant whether you’re buying lunch from a food truck or from a 4-star restaurant. Here’s how to minimize the risk of having food poisoning when you get back to your desk.

  1. Get customer reviews

    Like traditional restaurants, food trucks have happy customers and customers who found a fly in their soup! And trucks that are mobile units of brick and mortar restaurants have name recognition and reputations (good or bad).

    • Ask coworkers and people waiting in line at the truck what their experience with the food has been. Be specific. Ask if the food is consistently good, fresh and prepared the same way daily. Consider it a red flag if Alex from IT thinks the Sushi on Wheels, California rolls made her, actually, lose her lunch.
    • Get the opinions of others beyond your work location. But, search for reviews on social media platforms that include reviewer profiles (helps minimize relying on fake or false customer reviews). Also search Google for reviews written by professional restaurant reviewers and foodies.
    • Take notice of which food trucks are popular. If people are willing to use part of their lunch hour waiting in a long line at a truck, it suggests the food has been deemed tasty and safe to eat.
  2. Kick the tires

    Food trucks are small kitchens on wheels. Which allows them to offer dishes that include fresh and raw ingredients. But also makes them vulnerable to mechanical and operational issues that can cause food contamination, spoilage, and a long list of sanitary issues.

    • Search your local Department of Health website for information about a truck’s business license, operational violations, and inspection history.
    • Do a 360, if possible, of the exterior of the truck. Look for mechanical and operational issues that can affect food safety. Air conditioning coolant running like a river along the curb could be a sign of trouble.
    • Look at how food is being stored. Is raw meat, fish or poultry being kept in an ice chest or in a commercial freezer?
  3. Observe the food preparation

    Good food handling practices by food truck employees can minimize your risk of getting a salmonella sandwich. In some cities health department inspectors’ scores for food sellers must be posted where customers can see them. But the inspectors are not eating from the trucks daily. Create an informal food truck scoring system with your coworkers based on: overall truck cleanliness, employee food handling practices, food freshness, and personal particulars (portion size, taste, etc.).

    • Look at the inside of the truck. Food storage and prep areas, and the condition of cooking utensils are good indicators of cleanliness—or not.  Prep areas should be “working” clean when in use. But when not in use they should be free of dirty dish towels, pots, pans and cooking utensils.
    • Notice whether employees are wearing aprons, gloves, hairnets, and washing their hands. Employees should wash their hands before putting on a new pair of gloves and after touching their hair or face.
    • Be on the lookout for: employees handling money and then handling food without gloves; poor hygiene (dirty nails, employees working while sick, etc.); and personal items (backpacks, cell phones, etc.) sharing space with food prep areas.
    • Know that hand washing is critical to preventing foodborne illness. Employees should always wash their hands after taking out garbage, handling money, and having contact with the exterior of the truck.
    • Look for thermostat displays on cooking surfaces, countertop cookers and food storage areas. But, know that government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommend different minimum temperature guidelines for preparing and storing different types of raw meat, poultry and produce. Absent of these guidelines, the general rule is: hot food should be steamy hot and cold food should be cold.
  4. Inspect before you gobble

    Checking to make sure food is cooked thoroughly before eating is always a practical precaution. And heed the warning of the FSIS USDA,

    If you sense there’s a problem with any food product, don’t consume it. When in doubt, throw it out.

    In this case, don’t throw it out. Return it to the truck for a refund or for another batch of sliders.

    • Make sure beef, chicken and seafood are thoroughly cooked.
    • Smell fresh veggies and salads, salad dressings, fruit, and dairy products, and look for mold or odd coloring.
    • Check the expiration dates on prepackaged items such as cookies, juice, cheese, boiled eggs, and baked goods.
    • Know what menu items to avoid when it’s extremely hot outside. Even when a truck has air conditioning, temperature issues are a major concern during the summer months. It only takes one hour for raw poultry, meat or seafood sitting out on a 90-degree day to spoil. And like raw meat, cooked meat should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours, or one hour if the temperature is over 90 degrees.
    • Be suspicious if the price is too low: lobster rolls on the cheap may mean less than fresh lobster or the vendor may be selling a seafood substitute.

Health agencies across the country have policies that treat food trucks like other food establishments. They require food trucks to be licensed, and they routinely inspect them for sanitation and operational compliance. This type of third-party oversight of food truck vendors is one of many factors that make your favorite food trucks a safe lunchtime option.