Illegal food trucks pose public health risk

As Durham’s food truck culture continues to grow, illegally-operating food trucks are becoming a concern for the community.

Durham is recognized as one of the nation’s premier cities for food trucks, but legally-permitted food trucks and worried customers have recently expressed concern that illegally-operating mobile food units pose a danger to public safety and the Durham County Department of Public Health has received a number of food sickness complaints related to illegal vendors. In response, the department is taking steps to prevent illegal food trucks from operating and to educate consumers on the dangers of improper food preparation.

“Anyone who eats food that was prepared by an illegal vendor is taking their health into their own hands,” said J. Christopher Salter, director of environmental health at the Durham County Department of Public Health.

Salter explained that in order to legally sell food in North Carolina, mobile food units need to be issued a permit through the department’s “plan review process.” Inspectors look closely at the equipment and vehicle to make sure they fulfill certain requirements and do not present any health concerns. One of the most important requirements for obtaining a permit is having a commissary—a building where the majority of food preparation and waste removal takes place.

Food trucks that have not undergone this review process pose a public health risk because there is no way to know if the food was stored correctly or if proper equipment was used.

To assure the quality and safety of the food they are purchasing, customers should look for a county-issued “grade card,” which legal food trucks are required to display, Salter said. He noted that illegal vendors rarely resemble popular, legal food trucks—more often operating out of the back of a private SUV.

The department has also received complaints from legal food trucks that have lost sales to illegal vendors located near construction sites and busy intersections. Salter said it would be unfair to legal vendors—who incur significant costs to comply with the county’s requirements—for the department to ignore these illegal vendors.

Cecilia Polanco, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is working on starting her own food truck—So Good Pupusas—with help from the Morehead-Cain Foundation at UNC. Having grown up in Durham and eaten at Latino-owned food vendors in the area, Polanco said these vendors, which include many illegal ones, have not been a problem in the past because they were contained within the Latino community. Durham’s food truck boom and accompanying increases in regulation have led to increased scrutiny on said vendors, Polanco said.

“It’s upsetting to me because I know that these vendors have been doing this for a long, long time,” she said. “I don’t believe that there are the resources for them to know what they’re supposed to do until they get in trouble.”

Polanco said her eventual goal is to create a food truck that can be operated by multiple people so that currently illegal vendors can begin to make a living legally.

Salter described the department’s investigations not as a “crack-down” but as an “educational initiative,” acknowledging that many illegal vendors might originate from another country where selling food without a permit is legal. Rather than only shutting down the vendors, Salter said the department will put informational posters in churches, stores and community centers.

Illegal vendors are given three warnings from the department before the police are contacted to issue a citation, at which point a court date is set, Salter explained.

“We’re trying to get the message out there in hopes that people will adhere to the law and stop doing it,” Salter said. “And if people would stop buying from these folks, they’d stop doing it.”

Along with the Public Health Department’s efforts to educate vendors, a number of local food trucks are planning to create a food truck association that would help aspiring truck owners get started, said Susan Tower, owner of Deli-icious. The association would seek to educate new owners on best practices and regulatory requirements in order to maintain high quality within the industry.

Tower said the main threat illegal vendors pose to the industry is not a financial one, but instead the potential they have to damage its reputation.

“What they are going to do is end up getting in trouble,” Tower said. “The only way these food trucks are going to hurt us is by giving food trucks a bad name in general.”

Editor’s Note: The Chronicle spoke with Salter by phone and by email. The image originally accompanying this story was a file photo with the caption: "consumers and many Durham food trucks are raising concerns about the city’s public health being negatively impacted by illegally-operated food trucks." The photo was removed because the visual alone could have led some to assume the ones pictured were illegally operated. The Chronicle regrets the ambiguity. 


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