Food Trucks: Ensuring Safety During Rapid Growth

Date posted: 
Tuesday, March 27, 2018 - 11:30
Blog poster: 
Nancy Finney and Jonna Ashley
Email of Blog Poster: 

An interview with Maggie Staab, CP-FS – part of a NEHA effort to highlight stories of dedicated professionals working to keep our communities healthy and safe.

Across the country, environmental health professionals are exploring new methods to ensure people’s safety, as entrepreneurs and foodies have driven up the demand for food truck friendly communities. Up-and-coming cities like Denver have benefitted from being welcoming to the food truck industry, and their health departments can serve as examples for other cities who may want to follow suit. NEHA connected with Public Health Investigator, Maggie Staab, to discuss how Denver's Department of Public Health & Environment (DDPHE) has tackled food safety issues that occur in cities where the food truck industry is growing in popularity. Staab is the lead mobile investigator for DDPHE. 

NEHA: What brought you to the profession of environmental health?

Staab: I left the hospitality industry after growing up in my family’s restaurant and received my undergraduate degree in Hospitality Management from the University of Denver. Although I loved working in the industry, the long hours and late nights were no longer calling my name, so I pursued a career with Denver’s Department of Public Health & Environment as a Public Health Investigator. I started in 2014 and have been the lead food truck investigator for almost two years now. I enjoy educating those in the industry and helping them to be certain they are serving the community in the safest way possible.

 

How has the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment prepared for the influx of citizens and changed interests/demographics of Denver communities, including food trucks?

Staab: Our mission states: Empowering Denver’s communities to live better, longer.

DDPHE has embraced food trucks in the city and are helping them not only serve safe food by monitoring temperatures and sanitizers, but we are also monitoring their units more closely to ensure public safety when it comes to propane tanks and gas lines. We work closely with the Denver Fire Department and truck fabricators to make sure all stakeholders have the common goal of safety.

We collaborate closely with several city agencies, including the Office of Special Events, Excise and Licenses (EXL), and the Denver Fire Department (DFD) to make sure that food trucks can safely be at major events drawing people to the city. Some of these events include Civic Center Eats, Jazz in the Park, and DTC Eats – all of which primarily use food trucks as their food vendors. DDPHE inspectors are routinely evaluating trucks for food safety, as well as using gas leak detectors to guarantee the DFD rule of at least 10 feet of space between units utilizing propane.

DDPHE’s divisions also work together to assist innovative trucks – such as mobile grocers –reach communities that need access to healthy, affordable food. Denver just approved their first, of soon to be many, mobile grocers that will be reaching areas of the community that are designated as “food deserts” to provide fresh produce that might not normally be accessible. This program has hopes of expanding and potentially doing cooking demonstrations so food is provided and consumers are shown how to prepare produce in a healthy way.

The Public Health Inspections Division of Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment approached safety concerns of mobile retail food by collaborating with the Denver Fire Department, Risk Management Office, Police Department, and Department of Excise and Licenses. Can you share how this collaboration began and how it has benefitted the city overall?

Staab: DDPHE is always striving to ensure the best customer service possible and so we began to look at streamlining our plan review and licensing processes with EXL and DFD. During this time, we discovered the safety risks that were of concern related to potential food truck gas leaks. We worked alongside the Office of Risk Management to develop safety policies and procedures to make sure that inspectors are not only boarding safe trucks but that safe trucks are on the roads of Denver. We worked together with the ultimate goal of keeping Denver citizens safe since many events in the city often draw hundreds of thousands of people.

DFD is now onsite during all mobile unit licensing inspections, and is merely a phone call away when DDPHE is conducting routine field inspections. On more than one occasion, DFD has responded to propane leak concerns called in by a DDPHE investigator using their gas leak detector and in turn had to immediately shut down the operation. Additionally, DDPHE has worked together with the Denver Police Department to ensure the safety of our staff while conducting routine inspections of trucks that operate outside of traditional work hours –sometimes inspections can take place as late as midnight in downtown Denver. 

Please share some examples where social media and other media applications are used to locate mobile food establishments for field inspections or concerns.

Staab: As the lead food truck investigator, I spend around eight hours a week utilizing social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook, and Phoodio to locate trucks for inspections. Some trucks will routinely post their calendars, but a lot of the ‘hot spots’ (i.e., breweries) where trucks operate will also post weekly schedules. The City and County of Denver is currently developing a platform inside of the PocketGov app that will allow licensed food trucks to upload existing Google calendars and mark their location so the app’s 50,000 users, and DDPHE, can easily find any food truck operating in the City and County of Denver limits.

Denverites value the fun and variety that food trucks offer the city. What advice would you give to environmental health departments in other cities who may like to be more food truck friendly, but are afraid of the health and safety implications?

Staab: Food trucks are the wave of the future. Over the course of the past seven years Denver has seen an exponential increase in the number of licensed food trucks being operated, with less than 60 in 2010, to now upwards of 600 in 2017. Denver does not expect the number of trucks to decrease anytime soon. Being proactive and providing education to operators and vendors helps keep regulation manageable. Working with all city agencies involved in the regulatory capacity also keeps everyone on the same page. 

DDPHE does the following to help keep everything in line:

  • Quarterly City and County of Denver agency meetings
  • DFD conducts onsite visits with fabricators to ensure they are building safe trucks
  • Bi-annual local jurisdiction meetings
  • Quarterly e-newsletter sent to operators on emerging and/or relevant topics for the season (available in multiple languages)
  • Annual Food Truck Symposium hosted by DDPHE
    • Brought vendors, city agencies and surrounding local health departments together to provide resources for operators
  • Basic Food Safety Class geared toward Food Truck Operators
    • Includes information on Commissaries
    • Potable water and potable water hoses
  • Monthly, if not more frequent, communication with commissary operators
  • Educate during annual licensing inspections

Maggie Staab, along with her DDPHE colleague Grace Nelson, CP-FS, will lead a session about food trucks at the 2018 NEHA Annual Educational Conference & HUD Healthy Homes Conference in Anaheim, CA.
Support the work of the National Environmental Health Association and those keeping our communities safe through Membership.
Learn about NEHA's food safety materials and credentials.
For more information about food trucks, see a recent Journal of Environmental Health article about risk factors and inspection challenges.

This project was facilitiated by NEHA staff members Jonna Ashley (Membership Manager) and Nancy Finney, MPA (Technical Editor).

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Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect NEHA policy, endorsement, or action, and NEHA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.  

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