Operation Chuckwagon: Food Safety for Food Trucks

Jul 30, 2013, 12:00 PM

The Public Health Quality Improvement Exchange (PHQIX) is an online communication hub for public health professionals interested in learning and sharing information about quality improvement in public health. Created by RTI International and funded by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, PHQIX launched in September of 2012 with the goal of sustaining national efforts at quality improvement by providing public health practitioners with the opportunity to learn from the experiences of their colleagues. PHQIX includes:

  • An online database of quality improvement efforts by public health departments across the country
  • Search and query functions to help users find relevant examples for their own work
  • A forum for dialogue on quality improvement

A recent initiative shared on the site called Operation Chuckwagon looked at the maintaining quality control of food safety for mobile food trucks in Northern Kentucky.

Food trucks are growing in popularity across the country as an inexpensive way to try different cuisines, and following some of the weather disasters this past year, some municipalities dispatched food trucks, with cost covered for residents, to areas without power and in need of food. Safety is critical. A recent report in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found an outbreak of 91 salmonella cases linked to lunch trucks in Alberta, Canada. An investigation by food inspectors found many food storage and handling violations.

The Kentucky project increased the percentage of properly licensed mobile food vendors to 100 percent from a baseline of 25 percent, and also achieved a 100 percent compliance rate with required temperature controls, which had been a big problem during initial inspections.

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Ted Talley, environmental health manager at the health department, about the quality improvement initiative.

NewPublicHealth: What’s novel about how you’ve approached the food trucks and made it easier for them to have food safety inspections?

Ted Talley: Obviously, they’re mobile by nature so we actually had to go and track them down. And we’re close in proximity to Ohio and Indiana so it was very easy for a lot of these vendors to come into our area, operate for the day and go back to their home states. And the trucks typically head to warehouse areas and we don’t have any permitting facilities there so we had to go to where they were operating to find out if they were operating within the parameters of our food code.

NPH: How did the idea come about?

Ted Talley: One of the department food inspectors was put in charge of quality improvement (QI) and began slowly introducing us to the whole thought process of QI and performance management. She let us know we could put issues up that needed improvement. One of the food inspectors said he was driving around on his inspection route and saw mobile food vendors pass by and realized he didn’t think the department gave permits to mobile vendors. It was his idea to track down the mobile vendors for inspections and training.  

NPH: Did you drive up, knock on the door and say, hey, I’m the food inspector, let me talk to you?

Ted Talley: That’s exactly what we did. And some vendors were caught off guard and might have been operating for years without giving inspections much thought. Some were very open to education; with others, we had to do a bit more enforcement than education.

We went out and permitted just about every mobile food vendor we could find and then went back out into the field a while later to see how they were doing. The second time around we found we had a lot of temperature control issues, so we developed some policies and procedures that we could actually mail out and have available for the vendors. And the next time we went out we found a lot of improvement. We plan to head out again to check next month when the weather is hot, and we can see how they’re doing on maintaining the proper temperatures for the food they stock and sell.

NPH: Are you finding that the vendors the inspectors have met with want to maintain a level of safety for their food customers?

Ted Talley: I think they do. Some of the owners or operators just really lacked that basic knowledge like—heck, this is cottage cheese, it needs to refrigerated and can’t be next to the chips in the dry stock area. In some cases the owner and operator are not the same and there can be high turnover, so we’re going to keep our eyes open to see what more training we can do that can carry over even when operators change.

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This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.