Local street vendors get bum rap on cleanliness

There have been countless times J.J. Wylie has been told food trucks aren’t up to the same standards as restaurants.

As the co-owner of Grouchy John’s Coffee, which started out as a mobile vendor and now has a brick-and-mortar restaurant to accompany it, Wylie has defended the notion that trucks are dirty.

“My question to them is, what do they mean by not up to the same standards?” he said. “Usually, they don’t know exactly what they are talking about. They are just talking about an impression they have on food trucks.”

Seeking to address some misconceptions, the Institute of Justice recently published a study that examined health inspection reports in Las Vegas and found vendors did better than restaurants.

The study, “Street Eats, Safe Eats: How food trucks and carts stack up to restaurants on sanitation,” looked at more than 260,000 food safety inspection reports in seven cities from 2009 to July 2012.

Angela Erickson, who authored the study, said the research started primarily to address myths that mobile vendors were unsafe or downright dirty.

“We have seen a lot of policymakers press regulations because of those myths,” she said. “The data out there debunks them.”

Erickson chose major cities across the country to compare results over nearly four years.

In Las Vegas, that included about 85,000 inspections: 494 inspections from 163 food trucks; 42,611 inspections of 8,670 restaurants; 1,993 of 602 food carts; and 39,718 from other food establishments.

Erickson said in Las Vegas, she found trucks averaged three violations while restaurants averaged seven.

“I wasn’t surprised with the data,” she said. “Unlike restaurants, you can watch your food being prepared. You need to keep them clean to operate. “

Wylie knows firsthand the challenges of running a brick-and-mortar facility as well as a food truck.

“It is a lot easier with a restaurant because you have access to your own plumbing and space,” he said. “It can be far more frustrating to work on a truck.”

Even though having a truck might provide more challenges, he said keeping it clean is still manageable.

Wylie said being up to requirements on the truck hasn’t been any different from keeping his establishment clean.

When an inspector comes, he is ready for both.

Larry Rogers, the special events supervisor for the Southern Nevada Health District, said he isn’t surprised by the findings of the study.

“Food trucks are just as good as brick-and-mortar restaurants,” he said. “Microbes don’t care if they are growing on a truck or growing in a restaurant. They can get you sick at both places.”

Rogers has overseen the inspection of numerous food trucks.

“It’s not a very different process than a restaurant inspection,” he added.

He said there are a few nuances that separate mobile vendors from a brick-and-mortar establishment, such as having reserved water for sanitation, dumping wastewater accumulated throughout the time period or maintaining cooler temperatures.

“Being on a tarmac in Vegas during the heat of the summer can cause problems for some trucks,” Rogers said. “Other than that, we still are looking for the same things as far as food safety.”

This includes making sure food comes from approved sources, looking at employee hygiene, monitoring risk factors for cross-contamination and testing cooking and holding temperatures for food.

Just like restaurants, Rogers said they do unannounced inspections.

“We ask them for a copy of their routes,” he said. “We try to come during normal working hours to see them serving customers.”

A food truck getting an A grade or a C grade is no different from a brick-and-mortar that gets the same demerits, he added.

Rogers said he didn’t realize there have been a lot of myths generated about trucks.

“We are confident in our trucks,” he said. “We have invited several trucks onto our property (at the health district) to provide lunch for our employees. I don’t think there is any greater testament to our confidence in them. I don’t think the public should be afraid either.”