The 2014 movie Chef, starring Jon Favreau celebrated food trucks and the love people have for these mobile restaurants. In 2017, U.S. food trucks brought in an estimated $2.7 billion, up from $650 million just a few years prior.

We talked with UL’s Mike Haller, a registered environmental health specialist, about food truck safety. The first thing to look for, and the most important thing, Haller said, is to make sure that the food truck is permitted and inspected.

“Look for the health permit stickers, usually posted in their passenger side window. If you don’t see one, ask where it is,” Haller said. “If they can’t tell you, roll on out of there because they’re not legal.”

Foodies will be relieved to know that eating from permitted food trucks is typically safe.

“If eating from permitted food trucks overall was a risky practice, then counties would ban them. But by and large, they’re on par with a restaurant,” Haller said.

That said, food poisoning is no joke. It can cause an upset stomach, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever in otherwise unhealthy people, and is even riskier for immunocompromised people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. In severe cases, it can cause hospitalization, long-term health problems, or even death.

That’s why it’s important to look for common food safety issue red flags, including:

  • Cross-contamination, when raw meat/meat juices come in contact with other foods. Examples include cutting boards used for raw meat not being thoroughly cleaned and sanitized before being used to chop vegetables.
  • Improper hand washing. Anyone working with food should be handwashing for at least 20 seconds after handling any raw food, sneezing, touching his or her face, etc. Sometimes the limited space in a food truck means that workers can’t get to sinks easily, Haller said, so watch food handlers.
  • Improper refrigeration or heating. “Refrigerators are smaller in capacity and can be subject to temperature fluctuations as doors open and close constantly during busy periods,” Haller said. Also, hot foods must be kept hot, so if hot food it sitting out, it needs to be maintained at the proper temperature in a heated container.
  • Improper cleaning and sanitizing of food contact surfaces. “If trucks travel from spot to spot, and crowds are waiting, sometimes there is not a lot of time to do proper washing and sanitizing of utensils, which is something to watch for,” Haller said.

5 signs to look for

“The good news for food truck foodies is that you get a bird’s eye view of the kitchen,” Haller said. “You can see where the food is coming from, how it’s being prepared, who’s preparing it and how it is served.”

Check for:

1. The health permit, as mentioned above.

2. Good hygiene. Do food handlers have clean outer garments? Do they have proper hair confinement, i.e. ball caps, hair styled back or hairnets.

“The trick with hair styles is to determine if hair can fall into your food,” Haller said. “That’s what you want to avoid.”

Also, look at food handlers’ hands. Do they have open cuts or a Band-Aid? If so, they need to be wearing gloves. Also, gloves are required in most states when handling ready-to-eat foods like sandwiches or final/cooked ingredients.

“If they handle money, raw meat products or undertake any task that could contaminate their hands, or if they change their gloves to a new pair, all food workers must wash their hands thoroughly before touching other food,” Haller said. “None of this splash some water and wipe on an apron technique. I’m talking wet hands in a sink, using soap and rubbing hands together for 20 seconds before rinsing and drying with a single use paper towel. If you don’t see this occurring, burn rubber and pull away from the food truck.”

3. Cleanliness/orderliness of the truck. Does it appear clean and in good order? Is food stored up off the floor? Are cold foods coming out of a refrigerator? Do staff members use thermometers to check the temperatures of cooked food?

4. Condition of the condiments. Do the containers look clean? Are the dispensers sealed? If open, do they have sneeze guards? Single service utensils, like plastic forks, spoons and knives should be “handles-up” if unpackaged to minimize bare hand contact with the end of the utensil that contacts your mouth.

5. Ask for a copy of the last health inspection, when in doubt. If properly permitted, these meals on wheels are inspected on an announced and unannounced basis at least once per year for each type of inspection performed by the local health department, and you can read the most recent report.

“If you go through the above steps and everything checks out, feel confident and enjoy your meal,” Haller said. “Food trucks can be safe, as well as fun.”

Bon appetit!