Recently the L.A. Times looked at the state of the city's food truck and cart regulations, and it wasn't very pretty. According to their numbers, there are about 3,200 food trucks operating in Los Angeles County. Of them, only 60% were inspected last year. The other 40% haven't been inspected at all over the past three years.
This is troubling for a variety of reasons, but is the leniency that far out of line with the rest of the street food world? To find out, let's take a trip around the globe.
The strictest end of the spectrum is, as you might expect, the European street food scene. While anyone can set up a "street stall" in Vienna, first they must go through a lengthy documentation process, providing a map of where they want the stall, drawing an outline of how the interior will be organized, a plan for waste management, and a list of the machinery that'll be used. In the UK, things are even stricter, as vendors are also forced to provide liability insurance for all employees, have a documented hygiene management system approved, and register with the Environmental Health Office four weeks before the business opens.
In Switzerland, once a vendor gets approval from the hygiene department, they can apply for a license. However, the price is a big barrier to entry.
"It's quite pricy to attain the license," says Tom Weingart, owner of La Chouette, a creperie in Bern. "So that probably scares most of the small food stands as their margins are fairly small already."
Space is also at a premium in Switzerland: public land isn't available for food carts. Vendors instead must rely on the kindness of other businesses. "I have a friend who has a mobile hot dog car," says Weingart, "and he asks private owners if he can put his car on the private parking spot outside their house during lunch time."
Throughout much of Asia, the barriers for entry aren't nearly as high. While a permit is necessary in Singapore, it only costs the equivalent of $10 a year to get one. And in China, no permits are necessary at all. While one may expect a free-for-all like that to make it easier on vendors, it may actually be a hindrance. Without permits to show, police can shut them down pretty much whenever they feel like it. And they do.
Earlier this month, a popular night market in Shanghai was shut down because it was stopping traffic and forcing busses onto long detours. Hong Kong also recently shut down one of their most popular markets, the famed Choi Yuen Night Market, due to accusations that the vendors were "harming public hygiene" by congregating there. (The vendors at the market quickly found a new home.) As this commenter at a Hong Kong legal blog points out, it's not a matter of the vendors not wanting to sign up for licenses, but instead that the government's simply stopped issuing them. And the lack of licenses may eventually lead to the end of street vending in Hong Kong:
Under the current regulation, the total number of hawker licenses was 7,146 in 2008. Given the condition that the government has stopped issuing new licenses and the license will be cancelled upon the death of the license's owner, it is predictable that the number of hawkers will only keep decreasing. And one day there will be no more hawkers in Hong Kong.
Bangkok, meanwhile, is an entirely different beast. Other than the fact that all food stalls are closed on Mondays in order to allow street cleaners to come through, there's very little in the way of oversight. Wiley Frank, chef at Little Uncle in Seattle, spent a few years in Bangkok undetaking a culinary education. He never saw an inspection of a food stall during his time there. The determination of where one can eat safely is left to the consumer.
"Reputation is the best determinant as to where one would eat," says Frank. "You get what you pay for -- the cheaper the food, the less likely it will be delicious or well prepared." Beyond that, it helps to be aware of the general signifiers of grossness. "I hesitate to eat anything that is lukewarm, or if I see lots of flies, or the area smells like sewage, or if I see shellfish that looks like it has been sitting out all day, or sleepy parts of town where it looks like there has not been a customer for several hours. I use my nose and eyes and make a judgment call," says Frank. "I can trace the one time [I got sick] to a bowl of curried noodles, and I knew I would regret eating the dish of noodles because it was lukewarm."
However, that doesn't necessarily mean the food in Thailand is more dangerous than here.
"The food system in Thailand is much shorter than it is in the U.S.," says Frank. "In Thailand, that pork hanging in the market was probably killed that morning and will be sold, cooked and eaten within the day. In the U.S., that pork at a restaurant is probably already one to two weeks old by the time it hits your plate. Most ingredients in the U.S. take a shocking amount of time to go from farm to your mouth. And the more hands the product goes through, the more chances it has to get contaminated."
And finally, any article about L.A. street food wouldn't feel complete without a mention of how regulations work in Mexico. So to find out, I asked a friend living in Guadalajara to go out on his lunch break and ask a random cart some questions.
The worker at the cart chosen said that while the street they were currently on didn't require licenses, if they moved to onto one that did it would cost them about 200 pesos a week, paid to the local city council. And also, no matter where they're located, they're occasionally visited by the health department who make sure everything is clean and also offer advice on how to handle food. But if they don't want a license or can't pass an inspection, there are ways to get around all of that pesky paperwork.
"Bribes will let you sell," they said.
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