New regulations taking effect for food trucks

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 2.49.29 PMScreen Shot 2015-12-07 at 2.50.05 PMAustin American-Statesman

Food trucks in Austin and Central Texas are expecting some changes as new state and city rules come into effect.

Under new city guidelines beginning Jan. 1, central preparation facilities will be required to register with the city. These facilities supply water, dispose wastewater and act as a base where food trucks can prepare their products.

The facilities are usually restaurants or communal kitchens that rent out space to mobile food vendors and are used as the base of operation for the mobile food vendor. All food trucks must use a central preparation facility.

According to Vincent Delisi, assistant division manager at the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department, there are roughly 300 central preparation facilities in the county. It’s impossible to know the exact number, Delisi said, and that’s why the city wants to create an online registry for the businesses.

The registry is expected to be available to the public, Delisi said.

City law requires that mobile food vendors provide a letter from their central preparation facility, but Delisi said that hasn’t been enough to keep track of all the facilities.

“What we find is they change their facility midyear,” he said, making it impossible for health inspectors to know where they clean and replenish their supplies.

There will now be a $50 registration fee for central preparation facilities to host mobile food establishments in their kitchens.

Other changes involve the updated Texas Food Establishment Rules, which went into effect Oct. 11, and beefed-up training among restaurant employees in the state. At least one person in any food business — including food trucks establishments — must be a certified food manager, which means that they have undergone eight hours of training. The rest of the employees are now required to pass food handler training.

“What’s different about this state rule is it didn’t used to require food handler training, and food manager training was a recommendation and not a requirement,” Delisi said.

However, Austin business owners have already been required to comply with those stricter laws, Delisi said.

To complete food manager training in Austin, a person must undergo eight hours of training for around $100, Delisi said. Food-handler training costs roughly $20, depending on the vendor.

New rules aren’t the only thing food truck owners must worry about to remain in operation in Austin. According to records from the Health and Human Services Department obtained by the American-Statesman, 171 food trucks failed their annual health inspection from January through November. Forty-four of those establishments had their permits revoked after a failed inspection. The failed inspections account for almost 20 percent of the total number — 875 — of health inspection reports since January.

The high rate of failures is not unusual in Austin. In 2014, failures were almost 15 percent of the total number of health inspections. This is the first year the city has reported on the number of failures that result in a “removed decal,” requiring the business to close down immediately and go through the permitting process again.

According to Marcel Elizondo, environmental health supervisor for the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department, food truck business owners are required to hitch or drive their food truck to the department for an annual health and safety inspection. Then, the food truck operators are subject to one field examination, where a health inspector shows up at the site without warning to do an inspection.

“It’s a snapshot in time when we come out there,” Elizondo said. “It could be that 364 days of the year they have hot water, then the one day we come out there they don’t.”

Food trucks have their unique set of problems that are different from restaurants. Refrigeration can go out in the Texas heat and the truck can run out of its hot or cold water supply.

“We don’t want to encourage the public to think that if they had two poor inspections, they are like that all the time,” Elizondo said.

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