Food trucks – they come in all sizes, selling goods from ice cream, and burgers, to salads and smoothies.They’ve become a great alternative to “fast food” offering up delicious treats with a side of convenience.

But like any food establishment, they need good food safety practices and guidelines.

Mobile food units are a burgeoning market in Washington State and our current public health system is working to fold this new model into food code regulations.  Locally, public health’s priority is to work with industry and regulatory partners to develop models that ensure economic success while protecting consumers from foodborne outbreaks.

SB 5218 is a bill that would require a local regulatory authority (local health jurisdictions) to grant a permit to operate a mobile food unit to an applicant in the authority’s jurisdiction if the applicant: (1) Has obtained a valid permit to operate the mobile food unit from another local regulatory authority; and (2) Provides certain information to the local regulatory authority from which the applicant is seeking a permit.

This raises concerns for a couple of reasons. First, this bill would circumvent local control and the authority local health officers and boards of health have in establishing permit requirements. That means application and permit requirements in county X could supersede those in county Y should the mobile unit be operated in both counties.  Second, the context for operating in multiple jurisdictions would be different, putting the public’s health at risk.

A hypothetical example: “Eric J’s BBQ” is a food truck that operates in Thurston County. It’s permitted to be connected to electricity, a public water system, sewer, and is 100 yards from its commissary. This bill would allow the same truck to operate with the same permit at the State Renaissance Fair in Pierce County, where it would be hooked up to a generator, have limited amounts water on site, and have no immediate access to a commissary. Because there are key differences in the locations that impact food safety (a reliable source of electricity, limited amount to clean water, ability to do additional meal prep), the risk to improper food handling increases. To account for these differences, a modified operating plan and food menu would help assure proper food safety, minimizing the risk for foodborne outbreaks.

Currently, the state board of health is developing rules for mobile food units which would address the unique challenges they present to food code. Rule-making allows for direct input from industry and regulatory partners, and it makes it easier to keep up to date with research and best practices.  Rules are easily opened and revisions present more opportunity to continue to improve guidelines around mobile food units than legislation.

Additionally, two pilot projects testing out cross jurisdictional permitting are also underway in King and Pierce Counties.  These pilots will help hone best practices and lessons learned that can be applied to statewide implementation should they be successful.

Local public health is supporting of food trucks, but taking a slow and deliberate approach in the rulemaking process that focuses on the health and safety of consumers is the best way to ensuring the falafel you’re eating is as safe as it is delicious.

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Jaime Bodden

Jaime Bodden is the Managing Director for WSALPHO. Previously, Jaime managed and oversaw the operations of a small health department as Health Officer/Director. Additionally, Jaime has experience in community engagement, health promotion, global health, and health policy. She holds Master degrees in Social Work and Public Health from Washington University in St. Louis.
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