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A drive to grade food trucks in L.A. County

Los Angeles County may require the familiar letter placards on catering trucks, hot dog carts, even churro stands. Those who don't comply could be shut down.

September 14, 2010|By Rong-Gong Lin II, Los Angeles Times

Street food vendors could consider it the ultimate validation: a health inspection letter grade, certifying clean, safe food-handling practices aboard food trucks, hot dog carts, even churro stands.

Los Angeles County supervisors are scheduled to vote as early as next weekon a proposal to expand the county's popular letter-grading system from restaurants to mobile food eateries. The expansion, requested by public health officials, would affect nearly 10,000 vendors countywide.

The push to bring letter grades to food trucks illustrates their evolution from roach coaches to respectability in Los Angeles, the place where foodies search for the best tacos de mariscos and pursue superior taco-kimchi fusions. Legions of fans follow truck moves via Twitter.

"People were asking us, 'We go to a restaurant. We like the grading system. But what about all these trucks that are coming? How do we know?'" said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the county Department of Public Health. Over the years, he said, there "have been certainly a number that we've had to close, and we have had problems in a number of cases."

If the proposal is approved by the county and local city councils, 6,000 full-service catering trucks, selling everything from tacos to Korean barbecue, would start receiving letter grades, as would some 3,500 hot dog, churro, ice cream and even fruit carts. Those who aren't complying with county health rules could be shut down by the county.

County officials said that expanding the letter-grade program may require them to raise the current food services vehicle permit fees by 50%. More county inspectors may also be needed, they said, but health officials plan to study the issue for several months before making a formal request to the supervisors.

Pasadena, Long Beach and Vernon would not be covered by any action by the county because they have their own health departments.

The move to add food trucks to the restaurant letter-grading system comes amid growing debate about the proliferation of the trucks around L.A.

Last month, an L.A. City Council committee considered new restrictions on the trucks, fueled in part by some restaurants that complain the truck operators park on their streets and take away customers. Some restaurateurs say the trucks have an unfair advantage because they have lower overhead costs, and have proposed a permit system to better regulate the trucks.

Word of possible grades for food trucks got mixed reviews on the street. In downtown Los Angeles on Monday, near the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, True Eder, 10, munched on a banana ice cream sandwich her father bought from a COOLHAUS Ice Cream Sandwiches truck.

"If there were letters," she said, "I would be even more confident buying here."

But Kevin Green, 24, said his friends had vouched for the truck — and that was good enough for him.

"I don't think letters would make sense. As long as the food is good, everything is OK," Green said. "Does an 'A' on the truck make your stomach feel good? No."

Food trucks — regardless of any derision about sanitation practices aboard — have long been a staple in Los Angeles, catering to construction workers, day laborers and others looking for a cheap meal on the go. But in recent years, upscale newcomers have changed the street scene with innovative foods, inspiring legions of fans to follow their every move on Twitter, with some waiting upward of an hour for their bicultural fix.

Even brick-and-mortar restaurants have gone mobile, filling trucks with cupcakes, matzo ball soup or tamales in paper cups. In a sign of how mainstream food trucks have gone, Sizzler is planning to sell barbecued beef from a truck counter.

The popular restaurant letter-grading system has been in place in L.A. County since 1998, assigning restaurants an A, B, or C rating for their food hygiene practices. Health officials said the program has resulted in fewer food-borne illnesses.

The system was put into place after series of exposés on KCBS-TV Channel 2 showed footage of roaches crawling through kitchens and employees putting their hands in their mouths as they prepared food. In the rush to implement the letter-grade system, food trucks were overlooked.

Although county inspectors already are supposed to conduct annual visits to food trucks, meeting that goal has proved difficult because the eateries are on the move. In order to conduct two inspections every year, the new ordinance would require food trucks to register detailed routes and times with the county.

Fielding said the trendy trucks will be among the easiest to inspect, as their routes are posted on Twitter for their fans.

"We're going to go find them and do an inspection, so it'll be unannounced," Fielding said. "It will be in their interest to provide us with accurate information because they want to have an 'A' on their truck."

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