Work group finalizes recommendations on food cart pod safety

November 19, 2018

A committee of more than 40 food industry representatives, property owners and state and local health officials have finalized food safety recommendations for food cart pods in Multnomah County. The recommendations come after months of work and at the request of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners. 

members of the food pod work group gathered Nov. 15 to celebrate months of hard work.

A “food cart pod” is any location with more than one food carts; and there are more than 80 pods in the county. But while individual carts are licensed and inspected for safety, food pods are not. That has left a regulatory void in one of the nation’s most food-cart friendly counties. And it’s one the committee proposes to clarify by addressing key areas of concern: Should food carts or the food pod property operator be responsible for pest control and for providing access to clean water, electricity, trash and waste water disposal?

Multnomah County Environmental Health plans to present the committee’s proposals to the Board of Commissioners in January, at which time the board can decide whether to draft an ordinance assigning responsibilities to food pod operators.

Environmental Health’s food cart inspection team presented their concerns to the board last January. Among the issues: food carts are not subject to fire setbacks, so a fire in one cart can spark a series of fires if carts are placed too close together. At the same time, food pod operators are under no obligation to provide trash, waste water or oil disposal to carts that rent space on their land. That makes it difficult to point to a bad actor when agencies received complaints about illegal dumping.

Finally, individual carts must have fresh water for washing hands and dishes. And while food pod operators might offer a central reservoir that carts can tap, inspectors have found some carts used tubing not intended for drinking. And sometimes the hoses ran along the ground, under foot and vehicle traffic, causing punctures. Some of those holes even got patched with duct tape.

Environmental Health wanted to bring together a committee to recommend ways to close those gaps.

Rachel Clark, center, owner of the Goose Hollow Inn, speaks up during the final meeting of the food cart pod workgroup.

“No doubt that with the Health Department taking on this task, we will have a thorough vetting,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said at the time.

Environmental Health leaders have spent five months assembling a diverse group of stakeholders including health officials and staff from the Oregon Health Authority, Department of Environmental Quality, and cities of Portland and Gresham. They included industry representatives from the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, Oregon Mobile Food Vendor Association and Portland Business Alliance. They included food pod operators from Cartlandia, Portland Mercado and Piknik Park. And they included food cart owners from Sam's Saj and PDX Six Seven One.

The work group met for long monthly sessions to hash out recommendations, which culminated in a final session on Nov. 15 to review their recommendations and next steps.

“I would really hand it to the county for soliciting all this input instead of making recommendations in a bubble,” said Richard Johnson, owner of two pods including Piknik Park. “Getting all these other perspectives was very admirable. We all tried to reach consensus, but where we didn’t do that, we presented the different views so everyone felt heard.”

Johnson said asking food pod operators to take some responsibility in food safety would require some investment up front. It’s an investment he and his business partner decided to make, and he said it’s paid off financially. Food cart vendors are willing to pay a little more for access to basic services. And customers are happier in the end.

“There is a lot of variety of standards in food cart pods, and it benefits everybody to standardize it,” Johnson said. We try to do everything to make a positive, inviting environment for the customers. Because success for the carts is our success, too.”

The work group finalized recommendations on six core areas, and raised concerns about others that Environmental Health might explore later, including access to bathrooms, smoking, and sustainable practices.

Jeff Martin, supervisor for the county’s team of 24 health inspectors, said the work group provided good direction, reaffirming the areas his inspectors had outlined as concerns. “It's been outstanding for the last 10 years, since pods really started to take off,” he said. “It was overdue to start addressing some of the issues.”

Martin and Environmental Health Director Jae Douglas, Ph.D., expect to present the recommendations to the board in January, when the board will consider whether to ask the division to develop an ordinance giving food pod operators some responsibility regarding the sanitation of their properties. The draft ordinance would then come back before the board twice, during which time the public would have the opportunity to provide input. Any new ordinance would likely go into effect in 2020.

“This group has done an enormous amount of work. Clearly, folks have a stake in this,” Director Douglas said to the group Thursday. “Bureaucracy is the place where policy often originates, but it originates best in the community, with people who are the more knowledgeable, the most affected. That’s when good policy can formulate.”