Kern County Public Health Services officials are warning consumers about the health risks of purchasing pork rinds, tacos and other treats from unpermitted mobile vendors and launched a new campaign Monday to help report scofflaws.
The campaign, “Safe eats in Kern streets,” came about after Public Health officials began noticing an uptick in the number of vendors selling food in the street, many of whom lack permits. That may also mean they lack the education and certifications food handlers in California are required to maintain, putting the public at risk of developing foodborne illness if food isn’t prepared safely.
One in six people develops foodborne illness every year across the country.
“We’ve recently seen a significant increase in the number of vendors and complexity of food being sold from the street in unsanitary manners,” Public Health Services Director Matt Constantine said during a press conference Monday. “These situations present an immediate health and safety risk.”
So public health officials are lighting up electronic billboards with signs cautioning people to only eat at mobile vendors that prominently display a large green permit, and to turn them in if they don’t.
They’ve made it easier than before, including a link in the Safe Diner mobile app to identify the location and name of a vendor for public health officials to investigate, said Tom Beckett, a technology services manager at the public health department.
So far, 291 unsafe food handling practices have been reported across the county, Constantine said. That figure also includes brick-and-mortar establishments.
Even though mobile food vendors are required to maintain the same safe food handling practices as others, they’re some of the greatest offenders, Constantine said.
Last month, when public health inspectors rolled onto a street where several mobile vendors had set up shop, the owners scattered so fast that they didn’t bother turning off the propane tanks they were using to heat food, Constantine said.
When they found another vendor selling corn from a cooler strapped to his bicycle, inspectors told him they needed to see his home kitchen, where he was preparing the food. They got in their county car, and the vendor hopped on his bicycle to lead them there — then the vendor sped off, fleeing from the inspectors, Constantine said.
One of the biggest issues is that when mobile vendors set up anywhere they want, there’s nowhere for them to wash their hands. Constantine observed one man selling fruit who was using Windex instead of soap and water to keep his hands clean.
“There’s meat just being left out. No refrigeration, no electricity, dirty tables, unclean pots and pans,” Constantine said, describing the conditions he has seen mobile food vendors maintain.
And those who operate unpermitted carts and food trucks know that public health inspectors only work between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Constantine said, so they’ve altered their hours to avoid getting shut down.
Now public health inspectors have adjusted their hours to find the scofflaws after dark, Donna Fenton, director of the Environmental Health Services Division, said.
Operators of these types of businesses have a place, Constantine said, but they must operate within the law.
“These are folks working hard, trying to make a living, but they have to do it the right way,” Constantine said.
The permit isn’t expensive, Constantine said, but state law does limit what types of food vendors can sell. Most of it must be prepared in a commercial kitchen. On a recent inspection, Constantine said he saw some backyard cooks frying pork rinds in a steel trash can with a propane tank fixed to the bottom of it to heat the oil.
That’s not allowed.
Vendors in carts are only permitted to sell steamed or boiled hotdogs, corn and tamales, pre-approved packaged foods, churros, coffee and tea, according to the Public Health Services Department website.
There are also regulations about where those carts can sell food. They can’t be within 150 feet of a school on weekdays, or within 300 feet of a public park in the city of Bakersfield.
If it stays in a location longer than two hours, it must have a restroom within 200 feet for employees to wash their hands. Vendors must also report to the public health department where they’ll be selling food and during what hours.
“Our intent is to make sure no unsafe food prepared is served to the public,” Constantine said. “We want to work with the vendors, because our intent is to make sure they can succeed, but do it safely.”