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Healthy Outlook

Mobile food vendors add flavor to our community

By Steven Wharton, REHS

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

One of the best meals I've enjoyed in a long time was the chicken taco, rice and pinto beans I savored in Antioch last week. Where you ask? Well, it was not at a sit-down restaurant, but rather at a mobile food vehicle. Mobile food vehicles, often called "taco trucks" or "lunch wagons," serve a need in our community and can be great places to eat. Yet, any place that serves food, including mobile food vehicles, can be a source of illness, so enjoy with caution.

Mobile food vehicles include full-service vehicles (allowed to prepare and serve most all foods), limited-preparation vehicles (allowed to prepare and serve a limited selection of foods), produce vehicles, ice cream vehicles, hot dog and coffee carts, and push carts that sell prepackaged foods such as ice cream, candy and chips.

Before you eat at any restaurant, whether it's a sit-down place or a mobile food vehicle, I always recommend you first give the place a look over and always use common sense. Does it appear to be clean? Does it smell good? Are the employees properly handling food and washing their hands? Is the food hot or cold, depending what you ordered? Does the food look, smell and taste good? Is the most recent Official Inspection Report available for you to review? (California Retail Food Code, called CalCode, requires all food facilities, whether permanent-build or a mobile food vehicle, to make available for your review their most recent Official Inspection Report upon your request.) If you want to see the report before you head out, you can always research past reports for any Contra Costa County food facility 24 hours a day by visiting cchealth.org/eh and searching our Food Facility Inspection Database.

Push carts have been growing in popularity in recent years. Push carts need to be constructed in a way to store and serve food safely. Some of the construction requirements include non-absorbent, smooth and cleanable surfaces, sufficient food storage space, and in the case of ice cream an approved cold-holding unit. Improperly constructed push carts do not meet these standards. Examples of improperly constructed push carts include wooden carts and converted grocery store carts. If you see such a push cart in your neighborhood, please complete a complaint form by visiting cchealth.org/eh and choosing File a Complaint. Please include the date, time and location of the cart, what foods were being sold, and what the cart looked like.

Similarly, you can file a complaint about a sit-down restaurant or mobile food vehicle. If the complaint is regarding a foodborne illness, promptly call the Environmental Health Division of Contra Costa Health Services at 925-692-2500. We also speak Spanish.

Dining out can be a fun experience and when the weather warms up, nothing is sweeter than the taste of an ice cream bar from a push cart. Just make sure that summer treat doesn't turn into summer illness.

To find out more about retail food law and enforcement in Contra Costa County, visit cchealth.org/eh

Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at theairdoctor@gmail.com. For more health information, go to www.cchealth.org.
About the Author

Steven Wharton is a Registered Environmental Health Specialist II in the Environmental Health Division of Contra Costa Health Services.