Food trucks are more popular than ever. That’s definitely good news for mobile kitchen entrepreneurs with a dream of taking their creations on the road. But from the very beginning, every food truck operator and employee has to be aware of their responsibilities to public health, including passing health inspections.
Being compliant means taking charge of every aspect of hygiene in your food truck kitchen. From keeping food at the right temperatures to choosing trash bags that keep your cans clean and sanitary, there’s a lot to keep track of. Our beginner’s guide will show you six of the most important ways to stay on top of food truck sanitation.
Note: Health inspections can differ widely depending on your state and local laws. These tips are general advice on understanding a food truck owner’s responsibilities under the law, not official guidance.
1. Familiarize yourself with the different types of health inspections.
Health inspections usually fall into one of four categories:
- Licensing: Many health departments require food trucks to pass a food safety inspection before they receive their business license.
- Routine: Most restaurants will have to pass a routine unannounced health inspection at least once a year.
- For Cause: If someone has filed a health complaint against your food truck, you might receive a “for cause” inspection, in which an inspector investigates the complaint.
- Follow-Up: If an inspector has found that your food truck is out of compliance, they might conduct a follow-up visit later to make sure you’ve fixed the problem.
No matter what type of health inspection you’re dealing with, it’s important to always cooperate fully with an inspector. Being inspection ready at all times is important to protect your business and your customers.
2. Know the food safety standards you’ll be evaluated on.
It is hard to meet a standard if you do not know what it is! fYour local health department is the best place to start for information about health inspections. Get familiar with state and local food safety codes and make sure you understand them in detail, especially in the “critical violations” category:
- Cross-contamination, especially between raw ingredients and cooked food
- Food kept outside of its safe temperature range
- Ingredients sourced from unlicensed vendors
- Lack of correct hand washing
These aren’t the only possible violations, but they’re the ones that present the greatest health hazards, and thus the ones that health inspectors look for most carefully. Note also that many cities have health codes specific to food trucks. It’s critical not just to know these rules, but to structure your daily operations around compliance.
3. Carefully manage your waste disposal.
Food trucks can generate a lot of garbage during a busy shift, so it’s important that your trash disposal procedures are always compliant with food safety rules. Here are some crucial elements of safe waste disposal to think about:
- Make sure that your trash bags fit their cans correctly, such as 8-gallon trash bags for the smaller cans that food trucks sometimes use.
- All trash cans should have lids and a hands-free way to open them.
- Dispose of bagged waste properly, following the local rules.
- Clean out your trash cans regularly with soap and water to remove any residue that might be on the inside.
- Prevent trash bags from slipping down into the trash can by using trash can rubber bands to hold the bag in place.
4. Get serious about hand washing.
Frequent hand washing is an absolute must for preventing food borne illness in any kitchen. But in the intense, close-quarters environment of a food truck, it’s even more important. All food trucks need to be equipped with sinks that run pressurized hot and cold water and have soap for hand washing. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are a good supplement to hand washing, but they’re not a true substitute.
Every food truck employee should know how to wash their hands properly for the required amount of time. It’s also important that all employees know which situations always require hand washing, such as returning from the restroom or handling money. Hand washing may take a little extra time, but it’s one of the best ways to keep dangerous bacteria out of food.
5. Implement strict time and temperature control standards.
All food in your food truck kitchen needs to be properly stored and refrigerated to prevent potential foodborne illness. Use the Temperature Control for Safety (TCS) system to keep food out of the temperature danger zone and control the amount of time that it spends out of refrigeration.
Certain items are classified as potentially hazardous foods (PHFs) because of their high potential for bacteria growth, including meat and dairy products. Pay special attention to these foods and remember that all hot foods must be kept above 135º F to keep them safe from bacteria. Review the procedures for how long foods can be kept before they have to be thrown away, as well.
6. Make compliance an everyday habit.
Inspections are really only a tiny part of food safety. The bigger picture is your day-to-day compliance with food safety rules because that’s ultimately what keeps your guests safe. Make sure that all employees in your food truck business are committed to following the best protocols when it comes to fundamentals like food temperature and trash disposal.
Remember that following the spirit of the rules is just as important as going by the book. The end goal is safe and delicious food from a clean and hygienic food truck, not just doing enough to pass the inspection. Ultimately, it’s up to the managers and owners of every food truck to put the right hygiene policies in place, and to follow those policies at all times.
Food trucks are a vibrant part of the American culinary scene today. But simply being on wheels doesn’t excuse them from the same food safety responsibilities that every restaurant has to its customers. Playing by the rules that keep guests safe is always the number one job in food service — and those who do it well deserve their rewards.