9OYS Health Watch
Inside the inspections: How safe and clean is your favorite food truck?
Reporter: Marcelino Benito
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - They're on every corner serving up some of your favorite foods. But they do it on four wheels. Food truck mania is sweeping the nation. In Tucson, food trucks and hot dog stands are an even bigger craze. But just how safe and clean are these restaurants on wheels?
"I'm not going to say we're an unwelcome guest, but they do look at us like we're the grim reaper sometime," said Fernando Silvas.
Silvas is one of two Pima County food inspectors. He's charged with inspecting the more than 500 mobile food units in the area. Keyword here is mobile. One day they're here, the next day they're not.
"We try to piece it all together and find out where they're at cause our inspections are a surprise," said Silvas.
It's a total surprise. The vendors never know when they're coming. And they have to keep it that way.
"If they know you're coming they can prepare, anybody can be great for one day, when they know you're coming," Silvas said. "But if they don't know, you really see what they're like on a daily basis."
In reality, it's just a snapshot of one day a year. But whatever grade they get on that day, sticks. 9OYS tagged along with Silvas to see for ourselves if the food trucks pass the test. First stop, El Sinaolense Hot Dogs. Silvas gets to work checking food temps. Everything has to hit the right mark.
"It's actually at 120 degrees, so it's below hot holding," Silvas said, after finding some off temperature beans. "I'll be asking him some questions about that."
Then there's hygiene, it can be a problem. 9OYS cameras caught a cook, just after washing his hands, touching the trash can for a split second. But that second could translate to bacteria on your food.
All in all the verdict at El Sinaolense, an Excellent. No critical violations.
Next stop, a larger operation. Welcome to El Chivo de Oro. Tacos, juices, breakfast, all on the menu. Let the inspection begin.
"I don't get nervous," said vendor Maria Elena Dominguez. "We're always ready."
"Anyone can have a bad day," said Silvas.
And on this day, it was their turn. Broth wasn't up to temperature. Meats weren't clearly marked. Eggs stored too hot. The verdict here, a notch below, scoring a Good.
"I want the 'E' back," said Dominguez.
The final stop, one of the most popular dogs in town, El Perro Loco.
"They're very competitive," Silvas said. "And they really stake their reputations on their product."
The food here hit the perfect temp, but Silvas did find a problem: the tongs. If left at room temperature, the tongs need to be switched out every 4 to 5 hours. That's when bacteria slowly starts to form.
So the cook got on the phone and within minutes, fresh tongs arrive. Problem solved. The final grade: Good.
"I've had places where it's multiple violations, 6 or 7 violations," Silvas said. "That's a big risk."
It all depends on the place. 9OYS dug through food truck reports where: employees didn't wash hands, there was grease built up on shelves, and knives and tongs were kept in soiled containers. It can all make for a rough dining experience. But health inspectors say cases like these are the exception. In 2012, out of 495 inspections, only 19 food trucks received a needs improvement.
"Some are great," Silvas said. "And yes some really, really struggle with their inspections."
So just make sure you pick the right truck. The bottom line here is Tucson food trucks for the most part are safe and reliable places to eat. Health inspectors say food trucks should be able to show you their license at all times. If they can't, it's probably not a place you should eat at. You can look up your favorite food trucks and check their inspection history here.