Are Louisville food trucks making the grade?

Boel, Flack talk food trucks
Ricky Giannini (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Ricky Giannini (Source: WAVE 3 News)

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - It was one of the most talked about WAVE 3 News investigations in years -- food trucks: clean or dirty?

WAVE 3 News Troubleshooter Eric Flack's hidden camera story last July stirred a fiery response. Now, a new report out this summer is casting the food truck debate in a whole new light.

Food trucks are more popular than ever in Louisville, and changes required by the health department after our initial story aired have made them safer than ever, as well.

[PREVIOUS STORY: Health department worried about food truck sanitation, safety]

At the Gray Street Farmers Market in Louisville, the Sweet 'n' Savory food truck knows to make cleanliness a priority. After all, it's set up in the health department's parking lot.

"Our line gets bigger every time we come here," said co-owner Ashley Giannini.

"We own it. We take pride it in," added her husband and co-owner Ricky Giannini. "If we want it to be successful, we keep it up to standard."

[SLIDESHOW: Food trucks in downtown Louisville]

The Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness heightened its focus on food trucks in October 2013 when it started including them in the same ABC placard ratings system that lets you know how clean brick and mortar restaurants are.

The move came just months after an off-the-cuff comment a few months earlier to WAVE 3 News from health department inspector Connie Mendel enraged the food truck community.

"We feel you can operate safer from an actual building," Mendel said last year. When asked if she would eat from a food truck, Mendel laughed. "No. That's funny."

[PREVIOUS STORY: Kentucky food truck recipes featured in cookbook]

The story landed us in hot water with food truck fans and owners too. Our undercover video showed one temporary food stand keeping serving utensils in dirty water; and a permanent food truck operator who openly told us: he didn't use the triple sink cleaning system required by law because he thought it was unnecessary.

Food truck operators and fans filled social media arguing those were isolated incidents and that in general, food trucks are safe and sanitary as a normal restaurant.

Now, a new report from The Institute for Justice outside Washington, DC bolsters that argument. Titled Street Eats, Safe Eats, the group studied 34,500 food inspections over a three year period in Louisville and found food trucks outperformed restaurants on cleanliness.

[VIEW: Street Eats, Safe Eats; How food trucks and carts stack up to restaurants on sanitation]

Mobile food vendors averaged around 1.9 health code violations. Restaurants averaged 4.4.

That's no surprise to food truck customer Chris Cook.

"I would bet that food trucks would be under greater scrutiny by the regulatory bodies," Cook said. "So they probably need to keep up their game."

The WAVE 3 News Troubleshooter Department did its own review of food truck inspections over the past year. There were still a few problems Including a couple "C" ratings and one food truck that was temporarily shut down for a lack of running water which continues to be the biggest challenge for some.

But overall the majority of food trucks got glowing health reports. More than two dozen, including Sweet and Savory's crepe truck, had perfect scores.

"We pull the crepe griddles up," said Ashley Giannini, the co-owner of Sweet 'n' Savory. "We clean out underneath them."

The health department is cleaning up its public stance on food trucks as well. It's not just inviting food trucks to set up shop in their front yard but now calling food trucks "a good addition to our city's mix of food opportunities."

[PREVIOUS STORY: Health department meets with food truck owners over new rules]

That's from a statement the health department gave us, after it declined our request for another on camera interview about food truck cleanliness. Here's the health departments full response:

"Since last October, food trucks have been included in the Department of Public Health and Wellness' ABC Food Placard Program. Food trucks are also now required to have a certified food manager on duty at all times while the food truck is open for business or preparing food. Food truck operators have worked with us to implement this system.

All this is designed to keep consumers safe when they eat out. It's also designed to give consumers the information they need to make smart food choices and to incentivize food establishments to practice excellent food hygiene.

Food trucks have proven to be a good addition to our city's mix of food opportunities that are available to consumers. By and large, food trucks have operated in a safe manner and have earned good food inspection scores.

Last month the Institute for Justice published a report that asserted that "mobile food vendors, including food trucks and carts, are just as safe and sanitary as restaurants." The Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness has no reason to refute that assertion. While we neither substantiate nor rebut the scientific validity of the research, we are in agreement with many of the statements in the report. These include:

  • "Sanitation inspections help assure the public that restaurants are clean and safe, they can do the same for mobile vendors."
  • "For those policymakers concerned about health and safety, they should ensure-through inspections-that mobile food vendors are held to the same sanitation standards as restaurants. In this way, the public can enjoy food from vendors that is both delicious and safe while allowing entrepreneurship and economic growth to thrive."
  • "The type of food served at or from an establishment determines the level of detail required during a health inspection, which means not all the inspection categories apply to every establishment"
The bottom line is simply this - ensuring food safety for Louisville residents and visitors remains a top priority for the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness. Regardless of whether someone chooses to patronize a brick and mortar restaurant or a food truck, we will continue to work collaboratively with our food establishment operators to ensure that both options - brick and mortar restaurants and food trucks - are safe."

Food trucks are also likely to get continued positive reviews from fans who trust their food is in good hands.

"As long as they have passed their certifications and everything," said Ruth Wright, eating a crepe from Sweet 'n' Savory, "I'm not worried about it."

Copyright 2014 WAVE 3 News. All rights reserved.