On March 1, in our first Wellness Wednesday article, we asked that all-important question, “Do you know what’s in your lunch?” We’ve recently discovered that in some cases in Sacramento, there could be a lot more to worry about than meets the eye.

In our first article, we found that some Sacramento food trucks aren’t necessarily “above board” when it comes to truth in menus, claiming that certain ingredients are natural, non-processed, or even homemade, when in fact they’re not.

And, in one case, a Sacramento food truck owner claimed in a media interview on local news that his grilled cheese sandwiches are healthier than McDonald’s menu items. We tested this statement, and found that his food contained twice the calories and fat than McDonald’s items.

Yesterday, KCRA Channel 3 reported its investigation into Sacramento food truck safety. The report ends with far more questions than answers, and suggests that Sacramento is not yet prepared to support a street food market. To date, a handful of gourmet food truck operators have attempted to breathe some life into an otherwise non-existent market, only to be met head-on by strong opposition of local restaurateurs. KCRA’s report suggests that, perhaps Sacramento isn’t quite ready to take on the development of a vibrant street food market.

Having worked in the area of public health and safety for two decades, I have a deep, personal interest in assuring that foods and products sold to the public are safe to consume. We go to great lengths to research sources of ingredients and catch a glimpse of food preparation techniques of every food truck and food stand that we review, simply because we cannot ethically rate a food truck’s performance without having some understanding of what goes on behind the scenes.
So today’s Wellness Wednesday takes us down a slightly different road – safety. It’s just as important to wellness as GMO, MSG, high cholesterol, high fat, and processed chemical treatments, and it happens to be not only one of the most controllable aspects of food services, it’s one of the most dangerous.

Throughout my career, I have worked closely with the California Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the Food and Drug Administration with a specific focus in preserving public health and safety. In fact, many who know me would say I’ve made it a personal mission in my life.

When people hear the term, “roach coach,” they expect these trucks to contain potentially dangerous food. Gourmet food trucks operators have fought to distance themselves from this stereotype since the inception of the “food truck revolution,” but KCRA 3′s report takes some Sacramento food trucks back to the dark ages, behind industrial factories and construction sites where the burrito you purchased may have been prepared three weeks prior.

Many of us notice a restaurant’s grade or health score prominenantly posted on their windows or near the entries to their businesses. Would you dine at a restaurant who received a “D” on its health report? Probably not. More importantly, if you’re dining at a food truck, would you dine there if you saw a similar grade? But wait, you haven’t seen one, have you? If you live in Sacramento, you haven’t.

According to the KCRA 3 report, food trucks in Sacramento aren’t held to the same standards as restaurants. In fact, many of them are inspected during off-business hours when no food is even stored on the truck, much less handled and prepared. And, if you’re eating at the three SactoMoFo trucks, you may be getting more than you bargained for.

SactoMoFo is an agressive political activist organization aimed at pressuring City Council to change city ordinances to allow these trucks to vend on public streets throughout the city. Recently, the organization announced that it will take the three trucks out to weekly public events, although two of them have been continually cited for potentially dangerous health violations.

Food trucks are not held to the same standards as brick-and-mortar restaurants, according to the Sacramento County Environmental Health Division.

Drewski’s Hotrod Kitchen has received multiple violation notices, claiming improper meat storage temperatures, clogged and back-up drains, and improper food handling. Chando’s Tacos received multiple violations for not having running water on its truck, and the Krush Burger truck received mishandling violations. Each of these pose serious health risks that can potentially lead to serious illness.

Improper food storage leads to dangerous bacterial growth. Symptoms can be minor and may include nasea, diarreah, and other stomach upset, but can also lead to serious illness and hospitalization. Consequently, mishandling of food is the leading cause of cross- contamination, causing similar symptoms of food poisoning.

What can you do to protect yourself?

First and foremost, pay attention. It’s a challenge, but look through the serving window. It’s not often that you’ll have an opportunity to actually watch a chef preparing your food. Are they wearing gloves? Can you see them wash their hands? Did they remove the meat from the refrigerator to prepare it, or was it sitting nearby on a counter? Do you see personnel in the truck wiping the surfaces down? Are they chopping, cutting and seasoning on the same surface that they’re assembling the final product? Is the person who’s handling the cash also handling food?

Look at the truck. Is it generally clean? Does the interior appear cluttered?

Chances are, these trucks were inspected and approved without ever demonstrating that they prepare food in a safe manner. In Sacramento County, food trucks are not required to be inspected while in operation. In fact, many food truck operators meet with inspectors in parking lots where their trucks are inspected without any food in them at all.

According to the KCRA 3 report, times are changing. The County intends to begin a surprise inspection program like other counties in California, much in the same manner restaurants are inspected. However, they still plan for only two inspections per year, while restaurants are subject to at least three.

Should food trucks be required to be inspected more frequently? Should they be required to post inspection reports?

Chris Nestor, of House Kitchen and Bar, said in the KCRA 3 report, “Can you imagine what it’s like when they are not being inspected?”

Several food truck operators, boasting stellar inspection records feel that the SactoMoFo trucks cause a rift in the already struggling street food market in Sacramento, and bring a “roach coach” reputation to all trucks. One operator who asked to remain anonymous stated, “every one of our employees are trained and certified. We go through extensive courses in food handling and there really is no excuse for this. It gives us all a bad name. Those of us who make safety a priority aren’t shy about sharing our inspection reports. We have nothing to hide.”

During our travels in Sacramento, we reviewed Fuzion Eatz, Heavenly Dog, Wicked Wich, El Matador, and we not only reivewed Mama Kim on the Go, we visited her commercial kitchen. Each demonstrated safe handling practices, clean facilities, and an obvious knowledge in food safety.

According to Health Division records more than half of the trucks inspected last year received serious violalations, so critical that the trucks had to be re-inspected before being approved for business. The Health Division claims that even with surprise inspections, the failure rate for traditional restaurants in Sacramento is far lower than the three SactoMoFo trucks cited in the article.

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About the Author

Chris Ford is the founder of Stitches 'n Dishes and editor in chief with a passion for food, photography and travel. Chris is a Media Correspondent for the Food Network TV show, Eat St, a syndicated blogger, seasoned event organizer and promoter, a food critic, a marketing consultant and Social Media Marketing expert. Chris is also a fashion and entertainment photographer. When he's not dining on the sidewalk, he's snapping photos on the catwalk.