Food trucks and carts are hot right now. They're everywhere and even have their own events.
At a recent food truck rodeo in Durham, the menu options seemed almost unlimited. Customer Rich Callaghan pointed out that food trucks offer "a great assortment of main courses, desserts, stuff you don't find everywhere."
But have you ever wondered whether the food is always safe to eat? To find out, 5 On Your Side hit the road on a recent Friday with a Wake County health inspector to see what they look for, and what it takes to track the trucks. In Wake County alone, 65 food trucks and 54 food carts have permits to operate.
One of our first stops for the unannounced inspections, a truck that serves Mexican food off Capital Boulevard. "Do you have your permit with you?" Inspector Thomas Jumalon questioned the operator.
He was checking the temperature of a container filled with meat. "OK, this is 53 degrees also, so this needs to go in the trash as well," Jumalon said.
At a barbecue truck in Apex, Jumalon finds bottles with cleaning chemicals, just sitting out.
"All these other chemicals, they need to be stored below," he tells the operator. And at a hot dog stand near the Centennial Campus of North Carolina State University, Jumalon asks about basic supplies: "Hand sanitizer-- got any?"
As for how inspectors keep up with the trucks and carts that are always on the move, Jumalon laughs, "We don't!" Especially since the trucks and carts often move between counties and sometimes don't follow the rules.
"Some folks are operating with a suspended permit, or no permit at all," says Jumalon. Still, his priority is much the same as it is with brick and mortar restaurants: To help ensure customers won't get sick.
So food temperatures are a big concern and a problem for the operator of a hot dog stand in downtown Raleigh. "He needs some ice, and all he has right now is the product itself that's been refrigerated," Jumalon said as he peered into a large cooler filled to the top with packaged hot dogs and sausage. Jumlan shut down the stand.
Making it more difficult for customers to assess whether food from trucks and carts are safe-- for now, they do not post grade cards such as those you see in traditional restaurants. It appears that's about to change.
Next week, the North Carolina Commission for Public Health is expected to formally approve a new rule requiring grade cards be posted. It would take effect Sept. 1. Jumalon believes it will only help the inspectors’ efforts to help ensure we won't get sick the next time we grab food that really is on the go.