Austin is Hitched

Food Trailers and The Health Department

by NICOLE LEMMAN

Food trailers are in high demand in Austin and are showing no signs of losing momentum. These mobile “restaurants” continue to grow in numbers, but are they safe?

Mobile food vendors operate in much the same way a permanent establishment would. The same rules and regulations that are applied to brick-and-mortar restaurants are also applied to food trailers. When it comes to inspections, however, the process is a bit different.

The Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department is responsible for conducting inspections and issuing permits of over 4,000 food establishments in Austin. Permanent establishments are required to be inspected twice a year and are given a score of between 0 and 100.

Although it is virtually impossible to inspect mobile food eateries twice a year, sanitarians working for the health department drive around the city and perform field surveillance, as Robert Wright, a sanitarian supervisor who enforces various health codes and conducts inspections, explained it.

“It’s very challenging to [do annual inspections] on mobile food units, they’re a moving target. There are no scored inspections, there are just too many out there. We look for critical violations while observing in the field,” Wright said.

Wright explained the process of field surveillance to be much like that of the Austin Police Department looking for an out-of-date inspection sticker. If a trailer is spotted, they will observe them to ensure sanitary food handling. They make sure employees are washing their hands, there is not a problem with the control of rodents and insects, the food is at the right temperature and that the vehicle has not been altered since the issuance or renewal of their permit.

The annually renewed operational permit, as Wright referred to it, is required for all mobile eateries. Once a year, either on Tuesday or Thursday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., vendors are required to bring their vehicle to the Health and Human Services Department to prove their mobility.

Sanitarians, along with the Austin Fire Department, check all of the equipment on the mobile unit, much different from a routine inspection. The fire department is responsible for examining the fire fuel source, which is generally propane, while the health department makes sure there is proper warewashing equipment (the method by which dishes are cleaned), there is a place for food handlers to wash their hands, there is both hot and cold running water, the refrigerators are working at the right temperature and that the kitchen on wheels is fully enclosed, whether with a mesh screen or solid screen connected to the roof structure.

“Whether you’re mobile or a fixed establishment, everyone has their challenges. They all handle food in a similar environment. Our job is to make sure they are following code and practicing safe food handling,” said Wright.

Stricter regulations were placed on mobile food vendors in October 2010. They now have to disclose what central preparation facility, or CPF, they use to store, clean and dispose of their products. By law, they have to have a permanent restaurant as their home base, so to speak. They must also provide a monthly log of their use at their CPF to city officials.

Showing an itinerary of their truck routes is also a new regulation set forth to help the health department track them down and enforce complaints regarding food illnesses. You can see a full list of regulations among other things regarding food handling at the health department’s website.

The main goal of The Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department is to protect public health and prevent the spread of food-borne illness. They want the restaurants to be in full working order just as much as we do.

“We aren’t here to shut people down, we want to make sure citizens have enjoyable meals that don’t cause any harm. The people who own these trailers, hopefully they would share that same hope,” Carole Barasch, communications manager for the department, said.

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