Health Department Struggles to Keep Up with Kitchens on the Go

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Food trucks are an expanding industry in central Virginia and that's expanding the workload of the Virginia Department of Health. Health inspectors are having a hard time keeping up with the kitchens on the go.

The problem is that a limited number of health inspectors are trying to cover a large area of central Virginia and when the place of business is always moving, the problem gets amplified.

More and more of the public is eating up the food truck craze. You can find just about anything from barbeque to hot dogs and even dessert. Food trucks are a cheap way to get your meal on the run but will it cost you more than just cash?

"We do have a few operators that at times had some challenges keeping it as clean as we would hope to see,” said environmental health supervisor Eric Myers.

The health department is responsible for monitoring 53 permitted mobile food units in the Thomas Jefferson Health District. Seven inspectors try to keep up with them along with the other 850 regular restaurants in central Virginia. "We struggle to meet the inspection frequencies that we would like for those units," said Myers.

Fernando Dizon is joining the food-on-four-wheels movement by putting Little Manila out on the road. His Filipino food truck was inspected on August 13.

"They're pretty tough,” he stated. “It's like the toughest obstacle I have to go through. It's hard to keep it clean."

NBC29 pulled public health inspection reports for food trucks in central Virginia and found that 27 - more than half - had some sort of health code violation.  The goal is for health inspectors to make unannounced visits between two and four times a year, but it can be a problem. Case in point: Little Manila has had three inspections since mid-July but the South Fork food truck has had only one inspection since opening more than a year ago.

"The one challenge for us is actually finding units because many times they'll operate maybe at a construction site for a while and when that building is built, they move on," said Myers.

The health code violations varied from truck to truck. They included improper food temperatures, touching food with their bare hands, and dirty equipment and floors.

Food trucks have 16 pages of guidelines to comply with. Health inspectors work with food truck owners, just like restaurant owners, to teach them about proper food handling and preparation.

All critical violations NBC29 found were corrected on the spot and there were no reports of people getting sick. The health department holds food truck operators to a higher standard than most hold themselves to in home kitchens.

The health inspector put it this way: violations are like running a red light - you might never get into trouble doing it but the more red lights you run the better the chance.

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