Dicey Dining: Is it safe to eat at food trucks?

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – From burgers to burritos…

“It tastes awesome.”

Food trucks have become a fixture on the local scene.

Chris Pistorio says he treats himself to truck food every Friday.

Asked whether he has any qualms about whether the food’s prepared safely, Pistorio says, standing in line at a Lloyd’s truck on Main and Eagle Streets. “I trust it. I trust them. They’re good people.”

Actually, mobile food trucks have to meet the same criteria as restaurants on cleanliness and food preparation, and are required to have a health permit.

“The cleanliness and the sanitation has to be top priority for everybody. People can’t get sick, ” says Peter Cimino, co-founder of Lloyd Taco Truck.

Peter Cimino is one of the founders of Lloyd, which operates three trucks that specialize in tacos and burritos.

Lloyd was the first food truck in the City of Buffalo, opening in July 2010.  Cimino says being the first had some people wondering, and asking… is it safe to eat the food?

“Rest assured  we have to meet all the same code, if not a little bit greater code from a standards perspective. So, you’re safe to eat at the trucks,” Cimino says.

As we’ve done with restaurants – News 4 Investigates examined the mobile food service scene in Erie County. This category includes self-contained food service operations in a vehicle, movable stand or pushcart.

We discovered that the county conducted about 3800 routine inspections of restaurants last year, 84 percent had one or more violations. During the same time period nearly 130 mobile service eateries were inspected, and only 17 percent had one or more violations.

Mark Kowalski of the Erie County Health Department says the size of mobile operations compared to a fixed, brick-and-mortar restaurant creates a unique situation.

“These operators seem to have much greater contact with that smaller space and with that they seem to be able to keep it maintained better,” says Kowalski who directs the county’s restaurant inspection program.

Consider this — of the 279 mobile food service operations inspected since 2012 — only 4 were cited for critical violations. Most had no violations.

“That is a pretty good report card,” says Kowalski when asked about the inspections record for mobile establishments which includes trucks.

News 4 Investigates discovered that some food trucks have been cited for things like “sufficient amount of water not provided for food preparation…utensil cleaning and handwashing.”

Although, much of that can be blamed on water lines freezing in the winter.

“February was rather cold and some of the units had a problem with on board water service.” Kowalski adds. He says some truck operators had to suspend service until they figured out a way to keep the lines flowing.

In addition to his involvement with Lloyd, Peter Cimino organized the WNY Food Truck Association. He says the industry is learning how to better maintain trucks during the winter months –  including ways to keep the pipes from freezing.  And as we’ve seen with restaurant inspections – some mobile food service operations have been cited for “potentially hazardous food not maintained at proper temperature.”

That’s a biggie, and a critical violation that could lead to food contamination.

“You still have to bring it to all the proper temperatures,” says Cimino.  “You still have to hold at the proper temperatures during transition.”

Lloyd, for example, has a commissary where a lot of the food preparation takes place before it’s placed on the truck.  The commissary is also subject to health department inspections.

“We get inspected pretty routinely at events that we do,” says Cimino referring to the company’s three trucks.  “So, it’s not just here at the commissary, or the trucks individually needing to pass for a yearly. But it’s also coming out on site.”

It’s estimated that about 25 food  trucks are rolling on the streets these days,  serving up chow to hungry customers. But as far as we can determine, the mobile food service industry seems to be doing all the right things to stay in compliance with the health department.

Even Mark Kowalski, the dean of Erie County Health Inspectors,  has no problem eating at food trucks.

“I look to see that it looks satisfactory, and I rarely find anything that’s an issue when I’m out eating at them.”

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