Los Angeles considers more food truck legislation

A customer reads the menu on the 'Pyongyang Express' food truck in Los Angeles.
A customer reads the menu on the 'Pyongyang Express' food truck in Los Angeles. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Diane Betzler would hesitate to eat at a food truck even if it was serving filet mignon for free and the placard in the window gave it an A-plus rating for cleanliness.

She still hasn't entirely gotten over her experience of finding a drowned cockroach in a drink she bought at a truck 20 years ago.

Melissa Stevens, on the other hand, hardly goes anywhere these days but to a food truck when it's time for lunch.

"I trust them, and I've got a strong stomach," she joked on a recent afternoon as she stood in line at The Grilled Cheese Truck.

Los Angeles County on Tuesday tentatively adopted a new ordinance requiring food truck operators to submit to the same A-B-C letter-grading system as traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants.

Truckers are hoping the measure will at last put to rest those lingering rumors that behind even the most exotic Korean-style barbecued tacos, the sweetest crepes and the trendiest vegetarian hot dogs, there are E. coli bacteria lurking.

"Some people think maybe we don't even get a health permit," said Moises Alvarado as he dished up empanadas and quesadillas at his Surfer Taco truck. "Now they're going to know just how clean we are."

"I think it's going to mean more business for us," he added as he handed a pair of fish tacos out the window of his truck during a recent busy lunch hour in Hollywood.

As for his current clientele, ratings are fine with them, but many say they were already satisfied relying on word-of-mouth and ratings on sites like Facebook and Yelp.

"If I get food poisoning no one would eat here again because I'd tell the whole building," said Eva Huffman as she carried her lunch back to her office.

Others, like Betzler of Palmdale, acknowledged a letter grade might have an impact on them. But she might be willing to forget that cockroach incident if the grade was good and the truck looked clean.

The county Board of Supervisors must vote on the ordinance again next week. If passed, it will take effect 30 days from that day, county spokesman Brian Lew said.

The ordinance requires operators of food trucks, pushcarts and any other kind of mobile chow wagon to provide county health officials with their routes so surprise inspections can be made.

Depending on how the trucks score on inspections, they'll receive a placard with the grade A, B or C. Any vendor who scores lower than a 70 (the lowest C grade) can be shut down immediately. It's the same regulation restaurants face.

Truckers are quick to point out they already are inspected twice a year, once at the commissaries where they park their vehicles to be cleaned and another in the field. The only thing they don't get is the placard with the grade, said Matt Geller, vice president of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association.

"It's like a course in college where you do all the work and don't get the letter grade," he said.

"One of the things you see as a result of that is this myth that gets propagated that, 'Oh, those trucks aren't even regulated, they're rogue trucks.' There's a whole lot less opportunity to say that when there's a big A staring you in the face."

The food truck revolution of recent years is what led Los Angeles County to require the grades, said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, head of the county's health department.

An estimated 10,000 food vehicles traverse the streets of Los Angeles County. Small carts peddling churros or hot dogs are counted along with full-scale restaurant wagons, such as the Kogi Korean BBQ truck, which launched the gourmet food truck phenomenon in Los Angeles two years ago.

Fielding said they won't charge the operators additional fees for the first year after the changes, but will study whether the cost of regulating the trucks increases. He said having them post their schedules may make it less costly to find them.

"Like everybody else, I'd like to know the grade," said Fielding, who said he patronizes food trucks from time to time. "I want to make sure that protecting the public's health is top of my priority all the time."

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Associated Press Writer Daisy Nguyen contributed to this story.

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