If you’ve eaten from a food truck or cart in Los Angeles County, chew on this:
About 40% of the roughly 3,200 food trucks and carts cooking up meals in the area have never been inspected in the field by health officials since letter grades were introduced three years ago.
And most of the remaining 60% have been checked out only once a year, even though official guidelines call for at least two annual field inspections.
How do I know that? Because Angelo Bellomo, director of environmental health for the county Department of Public Health, told me so. He oversees inspections of all eateries, including mobile ones.
“This is an area that needs improvement,” Bellomo acknowledged.
That’s putting it mildly.
Bellomo and I discussed the sorry state of food-truck safety in L.A. after I presented him with what happened to Shimi Cohen.
Cohen, 52, and her husband recently bought hot dogs from a cart at a West L.A. farmers market. “We both ended up with stomach problems,” she told me. “It wasn’t pleasant.”
The couple recovered by the next day, but Cohen was curious. How safe was this cart’s food? What was its track record for health inspections?
She contacted the Department of Public Health and made her way through the bureaucratic kudzu to the agency’s Vehicle Inspection Program.
Cohen provided the name of the hot dog cart, but that wasn’t good enough. No record search could be done without the cart’s license plate number.
OK, that’s just insane. Who would have a food cart’s license plate number, especially a day later?
Cohen’s clever husband, it turned out. He was able to find a photo of the license plate online.
So Cohen got back in touch with the Vehicle Inspection Program and learned that there’s no record of it ever having been inspected in the field since 2011.
Let’s underline that. We’re talking about a cart from which hot dogs that have been sitting in warm water for hours are being sold to the public, and it hasn’t been given a look-see by field inspectors once in three years.
“I asked why this was,” Cohen recalled, “and I was told that they just didn’t have enough inspectors.”
I contacted the Vehicle Inspection Program and confirmed everything she’d been told. I’m not naming the operator of the hot dog cart because, even though I have no reason to doubt her, I can’t verify that Cohen and her husband were sickened by their mobile meal.
What’s more important is understanding how health inspectors failed to make at least six field inspections of that hot dog cart over three years, as per county guidelines, and how this is much more common than most people probably realize.
And then there’s the enormous difficulty consumers can have trying to access safety info about the 3,200 food trucks and carts classified by the county as “moderate to high risk” because they prepare and serve meals, as opposed to just selling packaged goods.
You can try going to the website of the Department of Public Health and clicking the link for restaurant inspections. This will take you to a page where you can enter the name of the business and then, from a drop-down menu for types of facilities, select “catering truck.”
However, not all food trucks will come up in such searches. If they’ve been leased from other companies, as is often the case, they can’t be found under their nom de street. If you don’t have the name of the actual owner, you won’t find it.
And if you’re looking for a food cart, you can forget that altogether. The site offers no way to search for so-called limited food preparation vehicles.
Your only other recourse is to send a fax or email to the agency’s Public Health Investigation Custodian of Records, which offers no guarantees that it can turn up any info.
Bellomo said county officials always knew there’d be some flies in the ointment, if not the chow, after letter grades for food trucks were introduced in 2011.
One problem that’s become clear, he said, is that the public can’t readily look up information about a truck or cart’s safety record.
Another is that health inspectors often don’t know where specific food trucks and carts can be found, making surprise inspections impossible. Such unannounced inspections are routine for restaurants.
Nearly all food trucks and carts do receive a separate certification inspection annually, Bellomo said. But this is conducted at their storage sites and not while they’re operating.
“The certification inspection gives us part of the picture,” Bellomo said. “It tells us that the equipment is functioning properly. What’s not in the picture for many of these vehicles is what’s happening out in the field where they’re preparing food and serving it to people.”
The uninspected hot dog cart that reportedly sickened the Cohens, he said, isn’t an isolated case.
“It’s a good example of what we face,” Bellomo said.
Add about 1,800 “low-risk” trucks serving packaged goods, such as ice cream, and health officials have roughly 5,000 vehicles to keep track of. That’s a tall order for the county’s 15 field inspectors and their two supervisors.
Bellomo said staffing isn’t the main concern, though he could probably use a few more inspectors. The biggest problem at the moment, he said, is knowing where food trucks and carts can be found at any given time.
“We might have a list of 10 that are scheduled for inspection but only be able to find three,” Bellomo said. “In many cases, we just don’t know where they are.”
Food trucks and carts that receive complaints from the public are generally a higher priority for inspections, he said. Others are scheduled on a rotating basis.
While I can understand the challenge of tracking down mobile operations, it may not be as difficult as officials think. For example, I found that the owner of the hot dog cart patronized by the Cohens was regularly tweeting where it could be found.
I bet that many other food trucks and carts are similarly active on social media.
Equipping such vehicles with GPS systems would seem an obvious solution. Bellomo said officials are considering this, “but we’re still looking at the cost factor.”
He also said he hopes the Department of Public Health’s website will become more user-friendly by next year, allowing consumers to easily search for — and find — safety information about all vehicles.
In the meantime, keep this in mind: If you dine alfresco in L.A. County, you’re taking your chances.
Think of it as the culinary version of Russian roulette.
David Lazarus’ column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.