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Austin food trucks have safe health record overall

Dec 1, 2013 1:01am

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Just before noon on a recent fall day, dozens of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department employees lined up outside a food trailer sending plumes of barbecue smoke through the agency's Southeast Austin parking lot.

Inside, Brian Rauschuber, owner of Nutter Buster BBQ & Comfort, sliced a foil-wrapped brisket for sandwiches — his signature offering.

"That's as moist as it gets," he told the Austin American-Statesman (http://bit.ly/1dzIkEV) as he slid his knife through the steaming brisket.

A week earlier, needing official approval to operate, Rauschuber had hitched his trailer to his pickup and driven it to the parking lot of the Austin-Travis County Health and Human Services Department for an annual health and safety inspection.

"It's nerve-wracking to the point that you want to cross all the T's and dot all the I's," Rauschuber said. "If you pass the Austin inspection, you can pass the inspection anywhere. They care about the public health, they care about the viability and success of your business, and they care about safety."

Nutter Buster easily passed. But since January 2012, 194 inspections of mobile vendors resulted in failures — about 13 percent of all inspections conducted in that period. Those vendors were forced to immediately close and be inspected again before reopening.

The food truck inspection failure rate far outpaces that of "brick and mortar" restaurants, which fail about 2 percent of inspections. Those establishments, however, face a different inspection process than mobile food vendors.

Health officials, food safety experts and mobile food vendor operators say that, though most mobile food vendors meet required standards, such establishments face unique challenges, including a lack of a constant source of water and power.

"Another issue is refrigeration," said Marcel Elizondo, a sanitarian supervisor for the local health department. "Here in the Texas heat, you have refrigeration equipment that is normally used inside an (air conditioned) kitchen. Well, here in Texas, you get temperatures reaching 120 to 130 inside a mobile food unit, and the refrigeration isn't always able to keep up."

A Statesman and KVUE review of all mobile food vendor health inspections in the last two years shows that, despite their higher failure rate, food trucks in Austin have a relatively healthy safety record.

Officials said they have not confirmed any instance of an illness outbreak from mobile food vendors in the past three years (although they have gotten 18 complaints from patients who suspected they were sickened from a mobile food establishment).

And, according to the review, most of the nearly 200 mobile food vendors who failed inspections were able to correct issues, reopen and didn't fail subsequent inspections.

Sixteen food trailers failed two inspections in the two-year period. Three failed three times in that same period: Kathy's Tacos No. 8, Short Bus Subs No. 2 and Snappy Snacks No. 20.

Inspection records show Kathy's Tacos No. 8 failed after inspectors twice found that workers were serving food prepared at a home in an unpermitted kitchen. They were ordered to remove those items from the trailer.

The owner of Kathy's Tacos No. 8 could not be reached for comment.

Short Bus Subs No. 2 failed inspections after officials discovered wastewater leaks coming from the trailer and found that it had no water supply at the time of an inspector's visit.

Dane Klusman, co-owner of Short Bus Subs No. 2, said his operation doesn't rely on water, and that employees use the water from businesses where they are parked to wash their hands.

"The big thing is that we don't do any dishes on the bus, and so we don't use the sink really," Klusman said.

Tom Ramsey, owner of Snappy Snacks Mobile Catering and Food Court La Placita, said he leases mobile units to independent operators, including one who ran unit No. 20. He said that unit has since been taken out of service and replaced with a newer vehicle.

According to inspection reports, Snappy Snacks No. 20 failed inspections because of a lack of adequate refrigeration and food, including cheese and pork, stored at improper temperatures.

Texas law requires mobile food vendors to be inspected for basic sanitation and proper food preparation and storage. But it also permits local officials to establish rules that are stricter than those required by the state.

The city of Austin adopted new rules in 2010 requiring vendors to provide proof of a state sales tax permit, document the use of a central food preparation facility (also known as a commissary), and to provide an itinerary of their routes. The rules also require written permission for employees to use the restrooms at businesses from which vendors lease space and make operators undergo a separate Austin Fire Department inspection.

Vendors either pass or fail; there is no numeric score or grade. Fees for such permits usually total about $350.

At least once a year, inspectors also conduct an unscheduled, pass-or-fail inspection at sites where vendors operate. Inspectors evaluate whether the vendor has soap and towels at a sink, a wastewater tank and a hot water supply, for instance.

"When they come here, they aren't in operation, so we can't see that they are properly washing their hands, we can't see how they are handling the food," Elizondo said. "When we go out there, they are going to be set up like a miniature restaurant, so that is when we can go out and actually see them in operation and make sure they are following the food safety rules."

If they fail the surprise inspection, the vendors are immediately closed, and "you can't operate until you come back," said Vincent Delisi, assistant division manager for the health department's environmental health services.

Full-service restaurants face a similar but more expansive inspection process. However, they receive a numeric grade, and, if they score below 70, they are generally inspected again after 10 days. Subsequent failures within a certain period can lead to a restaurant's closure, but officials said if they inspect an establishment and find certain critical infractions, such as a lack of water, it is immediately shut down.

Austin-Travis County Health and Human Services officials said that when they receive reports from a sick food consumer, they document where and what that person ate three days prior.

"As you would expect, there have been many chain restaurants and local eateries, including mobile vending units, listed as part of some food histories," Austin health services epidemiologist Heather Cooks-Sinclair said in an email. She added that, "There have been no outbreak investigations involving a mobile vending establishment." An outbreak investigation is performed when two or more individuals report eating at the same establishment within a short period of time.

At a food trailer park on South First Street on a recent weekday, patron Michael Wiese said he seldom gives a thought to food safety or trailer sanitation. Instead, Wiese said as he ate a plate of tacos, he simply enjoys.

"It's delicious food," he said.

___

Information from: Austin American-Statesman,


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