Fireballs & Food Trucks: Pondering the Safety of Mobile Eateries

    Food trucks have once again become a staple in the streets of Philadelphia. The “lunch trucks” of the past have been replaced by niche mobile cuisine. In the last 10 years, food trucks have exploded in Philadelphia, as well as most of the nation’s metropolitan areas. This trend has brought a cornucopia of delicious mobile food options. Look no further than Temple University’s campus to see diverse mobile offerings as varied as crepes, cupcakes, arepas, and soul food.

    One of the chefs we work with, Nick Farina, owner of Verdad Restaurant & Tequila Bar and Union Taco, launched his own food truck about a year ago. And after exclusively operating in the suburbs, the truck has gained a license within the city, and will provide delicious Latin cuisine in the city’s storied Love Park.

    Without a doubt, food trucks are one of the aspects of Philly that makes the city so vibrant, diverse, and endlessly exciting. But, on the other hand, we as a city learned last week that accidents certainly can happen.

    Unfortunately, such an accident occurred last Wednesday, as a truck exploded in the city’s working class neighborhood of Feltonville, leaving 12 people hurt, five of which were critically injured, including the two operators of La Parrillada Chapina truck. The accident was caused by a severe leak in one of the truck’s propane tanks, which created a massive fireball that was caught on tape by security cameras in the area.

    Philly Food Truck Explosion

    The aftermath of a food truck explosion in the Feltonville neighborhood.  Credit to C.F. Sanchez

    This tragic event has left an obvious question in many Philadelphians minds: Are food trucks safe? Food truck requirements vary from city to city, but in Philadelphia, a mobile food vendor must meet plan review requirements as well as pass Food Establishment Personnel Food Safety Certifications before opening their truck for business. Basically, food trucks must meet the same safety and health requirements as restaurants in the city of Philadelphia.

    One question I always wondered was whether or not mobile vendor employees had access to restrooms. Of course, I want my food to be made by people with clean hands, but I also empathize with these individuals who work in hot conditions, and I really hope they have access to restrooms for their own comfort. It turns out that these mobile vendors must meet eight general requirements as well as a massive list of safety and health requirements to be able to legally operate in the city, and providing access to restrooms is one of the eight general rules.

    The eight general requirements are:

    1. All food must be clean, wholesome, free from spoilage, adulteration, and safe for human consumption.

    2. All food shall be from approved licensed facilities or be prepared on unit, subject to Health Department approval.

    3. A person-in-charge must be present at the site at all times.

    4. Personnel must wear clean outer garments and must keep their hands clean at all times while engaged in food handling operations.

    5. All individuals involved in food handling activities must wear a suitable head covering or hair restraint to protect the food from contamination.

    6. All persons with signs, symptom or diagnosis with any foodborne illness must report it to the person-in-charge.

    7. Restrooms must be readily available for employee use.

    8. Mobile food units must be constructed so as to be easily movable by one person when fully operational and in compliance with all other provisions of the Philadelphia Vendor Code.

    It appears that the city has a number of logical, common-sense rules in place to ensure that the mobile food we consume is just as safe as any stationary food we eat, but with an event so tragic happening out of nowhere, it’s natural to question whether or not our regulations are enough.

    But, perhaps this was just a freak event. I definitely can’t think of another food truck accident in Philly off the top of my head, but I’ve only lived here for five years. It’s also not very common to see such a massive explosion caught on tape from multiple angles, so that definitely makes the story more newsworthy. Let us hope that this explosion was indeed an exception to the rule. I suppose time will determine if we have done enough to ensure the safety of our food trucks.

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