Vendor Cart Operations Manual – Food Safety Guide

General Food Service Guidelines

Food Safety Training

It is highly recommended that each cart operator take a food safety training course before beginning to operate a new food concession business. These courses are usually offered by the local county health department.

In fact, taking such a food safety training is often a mandatory requirement in obtaining an operating permit as a food vendor. Check with the local health department for details on these courses in your area. The Saskatoon Region Health Department specifies that “All operators of food carts must possess the Foodsafe Level 1 certificate or other recognized foodhandlers certificate”.

As a commercial food vendor you are considered to be a professional food handler by health department officials and therefore you must operate under their specific guidelines. Failure to comply with these guidelines and regulations will endanger the health of you and your customers. Failure to comply will also result in fines and maybe even the loss of your operations permit.

The health department may require the operator to have a HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) procedures system in place. This system would be covered in the local food safety training program. It simply means that you identify key times when your food could get spoiled and you make sure it does not happen. For instance, when receiving a shipment of meat, you would check the best before date on the package, check the temperature of the meat, and record these in a log book. If anything was wrong, you would reject the shipment or discard the meat. Really HACCP is a fancy itemized and more detailed system of what we do with our own food at home for our own safety.

Allowable Food Types

You must check with your local health department for the exact local health codes pertaining to the allowable foods that can be served from mobile food vendor carts in your area.

These regulations vary from place to place. For instance, some health departments will not allow hot dog carts to serve dairy based condiments such as grated cheese or squeeze bottle cheese. Some specifically forbid mayonnaise to be served from a mobile cart. Others may allow these foods.

For example, the Toronto Public Health Department states: “Only condiments that do not require refrigeration after opening are allowed on the cart. Grated cheese, squeeze cheese and mayonaise are hazardous dairy products that require refrigeration and are not allowed”. (Although technically mayonaise is actually not a dairy product, it does spoil quickly without refrigeration.)

Most do not allow mobile food vendors to cook raw meats. This is because raw meats are considered to be “potentially hazardous foods”.

Potentially hazardous foods are foods that are capable of supporting the rapid growth of dangerous bacteria or other toxic micro-organisms that would be dangerous to humans. Potentially hazardous foods include meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy products, garlic-in-oil mixtures, cooked rice and cooked potatoes. They are subject to rapid bacterial growth when stored or handled improperly or not sufficiently cooked.

For this reason mobile food stands are usually limited to reheating previously cooked meats in the form of weiners, sausages and patties. These previously cooked meat products still must be stored at a safe temperature and then properly reheated to the correct temperature to prevent bacterial growth and thus ensure safety. These are to be reheated to specific temperatures by being boiled, steamed, grilled or barbequed on the cart.

Additionally, many health departments will not allow a mobile food vendor to prepare certain other foods on the vending cart. For example, the Durham Region Health Department states: “Chopped onions or other vegetables must not be prepared on site”. These foods must be prepared (preparing includes peeling, chopping and packaging for later use) at an approved food facility such as a restaurant or deli. Most health departments will not allow you to prepare these in your personal home.

All foods sold from your vending stand must come from approved sources. These approved sources would be other facilities that are licensed and inspected by the health department for producing retail food that will be consumed by the public. This means, for instance, that you can not sell sausages made in your personal home. In fact, some health departments will request that you provide proof of the approved source of the food that you are selling during their inspection of your food concession stand. This means you would have to show the health inspector your receipt or bill of lading from the approved food supplier.

Cold Food Storage

Meats must be stored on the cart below a specified cold temperature. Toronto Public Health specifies that potentially hazardous foods such as meats be kept stored at or below 4°C (40°F). This will require the food cart operator to have an accurate direct reading thermometer on hand to monitor this refrigeration temperature. (A direct reading thermometer means that the thermometer reads the actual temperature in the storage unit. This is in contrast to a temperature control knob that you would turn to a desired setting. The gauge will indicate if the temperature setting is achieved or not.)

The temperature in the refrigerator or ice box should also be checked by the cart operator at regular intervals throughout the day to ensure that the meat does not spoil. Every 2 hours would be a good idea. Care should be taken to ensure that refrigerator doors or ice box covers are not inadvertently left open resulting in the interior temperature rising above this specified cold storage level.

Local health departments vary widely in the means by which a food cart operator can refrigerate food. Some allow ice, dry ice and/or freezer gel packs to keep food cold. These may be used in conjunction with insulated cold chests or coolers. Other health departments specify that only mechanical refrigeration units such as electric powered or propane powered refrigerators can be used.

For example, the Toronto and Durham area health departments allow perishable foods to be cold stored in coolers on ice, on freezer packs or on dry ice. Not far away in the Southeast Ontario area, the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit specifies that only mechanical refrigeration units can be used to store hazardous foods. The storage temperature of 4°C (40°F) or less is the same in all these areas. The methods, however, allowed to achieve this temperature are not the same. Some health departments will only allow ice to be used to cool beverages such as canned soft drinks. The Saskatoon Region Health Department specifies that “Food carts using frozen gel packs or dry ice as a means of refrigeration have an eight hour limit on operating hours per day”. Saskatoon also specifies that the only hazardous foods that can be cooled using frozen gel packs or dry ice are commercially prepared weiners sold from hot dog carts. it does not apply to any other potentially hazardous foods.

Food cart operators should check food temperatures when they are received from the supplier. Reject any foods that fall outside of the accepted ranges. All perishable foods should be put away promptly in appropriate refrigerated storage units. A thermometer must be on hand to verify that the storage temperatures are correct.

Food Heating Temperatures

Health departments require that you heat cooked foods to certain temperatures before allowing you to serve them to people.

Pre-cooked hot dog sausages for example, must be re-heated to at least 74°C (165°F) before serving. To accurately determine this temperature insert a food grade thermometer lengthwise into the center of the hot dog. Be sure that the thermometer probe does not pass through the meat and touch the cooking surface. This would give a false high temperature reading.

Never rely on equipment thermostats to accurately achieve set temperatures according to dial settings as these are often inaccurate. Always measure food temperatures with a thermometer.

The above internal temperatures must be reached and also maintained for a certain minimum amount of time to facilitate complete cooking before serving. For example, most public health departments will specify that meat must reach the required temperature for a minimum of 15 seconds. Once these initial cooking temperatures have been reached for the specified times, the meat can now be put in a holding area and held there above the specified temperature until served to customers.

Hot Food Holding Temperatures

Once meat has been cooked it must then be continuously held above a temperature specified by the health department. This specified required holding temperature varies from place to place. The Kingston Lennox Frontenac and Addington Counties Public Health Department, for instance, recommends a holding temperature of 60°C (140°F) or above. Monitoring this holding temperature will also require the food cart operator to have a food grade thermometer on hand to periodically check this temperature.

Food Temperature Summary

Following the above rules to store and cook meat keeps the product fresh and prevents the growth of bacteria. To summarize, the health department typically will require hot foods such as sausages to be held above 60°C and cold perishable items to be stored below 4°C. The danger zone for bacterial growth and food spoilage is between 4°C and 60°C. Avoid allowing meat or any other potentially hazardous food to remain in this temperature danger zone for prolonged periods.

Safe Food Handling, Preparation and Storage

During preparation and cooking you must take great care to avoid cross contamination, especially between meats and any other food items. Be especially careful when handling raw, fresh or frozen meats. Meat carries potentially hazardous bacteria that can make you and your customers very ill. Some have the capacity to even kill.

The area used for preparing meats must be washed and sanitized before being used to prepare any other food items! For example, if using a cutting board to separate frozen meat pieces, that board must be washed and sanitized before using it to chop onions. Similarly any utensils used would have to be washed and sanitized after coming into contact with meat. A sanitizing solution may be made by adding 1 teaspoon (5mL) of chlorine bleach to 1 litre of water.

Do not place cooked meats back on the tray, shelf,  table top or other surface used to prepare or transport the uncooked (raw, fresh or frozen) meat. For instance, if you used a tray to bring weiners from the ice box to the barbeque grill for reheating, you must not put the cooked weiners back onto that same tray. That tray has been contaminated by the uncooked meat. It must be washed and sanitized before being used again.

Similarly you must not use the same utensils to handle both cooked and uncooked meat. Raw, fresh, and frozen meats must be regarded as hazardous. They may be carrying harmful living bacteria. Anything that touches them becomes contaminated. This  includes knives, forks or tongs used to handle the meat. These must be washed and sanitized before being used again.

Meats, whether raw, fresh or frozen, must be stored on shelves below and separate from any other food items. This is so as to prevent them from contaminating the other food items. For example, meat stored on a shelf could contaminate foods stored below by dripping on them.

It is wise practice (and often required by law) to keep meat and other food products in separate storage units. For example, a mobile food cart vendor using iceboxes to store refrigerated items would have one icebox for storing meat and another cooler for storing non-meat items such as condiments or drinks. Meats stored in a refrigerator on a vending cart with other foods must be kept on the bottom shelves below the other foods.

Never store food directly on the floor or the ground. Foods must always be stored on a shelf raised up off of the floor or ground. This is to prevent them from being contaminated by dirt, insects, water, any spills and any other materials from the ground.

Remember to always thoroughly wash and sanitize food preparation surfaces, equipment and utensils between each use.

Do not store cleaning chemicals alongside food or with food preparation utensils. They must be stored completely separate so as to prevent contamination and food poisoning. All chemicals should be clearly labeled so they are not misused.

Properly Storing, Preparing and Serving Condiments

Many local health departments will not allow hot dog cart vendors to serve any dairy based condiment products such as milk or milk products such as grated cheese or even squeeze bottle cheese. Some health departments will only allow condiments that do not require refrigeration after opening to be served from a cart. So it is very important to check first with your local health department for the specific local codes regarding condiments before beginning operations.

If such perishable condiments are allowed to be served from a mobile food cart, it is very important to follow the specific health guidelines to ensure that these condiments are maintained in healthy condition throughout your business day. If refrigerated condiments are allowed, keep them below the specified cold holding temperature (usually  4°C (40°F) and below). This requires a thermometer in that cold compartment to monitor the temperature there.

Condiments must be kept in clean, easy to wash containers. These must be kept covered at all times to prevent insects, dust, leaf litter, or rain to enter them. Jars with screw lids are usually not acceptable as serving containers by most health departments as customers will often leave them open or mishandle and contaminate the lids. Most health departments allow squeeze bottles or pump dispensers for condiments such as mustard and ketchup. For other condiments, such as relish, sauces or chopped onions, small trays with flip top hinged lids may be allowed. These should be kept closed when not being used.

If the concession stand operator observes a customer contaminating the condiments by mishandling, sneezing, or some other means, the condiment contents must be discarded and the container cleaned and sanitized. Likewise a customer contaminated utensil must be cleaned or replaced immediately.

If condiments do become contaminated during the day, the containers should be emptied, cleaned and refilled with fresh food. Alternatively condiments can be served in those small plastic single service packages. In fact, in some areas, these are the only allowed method of serving condiments!

For the above reasons, many food vendors apply all the condiments to a hot dog themselves at the customers direction so that these are properly and safely handled. This may increase the time spent serving each customer, but it reduces waste and time spent cleaning contaminated items.

Do not store condiments directly on the floor or the ground. Always store foods on a shelf raised above the floor or the ground. This includes foods that are prepackaged such as single serving condiments. This is because the packages themselves can become contaminated and be transferred to the food or the customers hands during use.

Do not store your condiments in the same cooler as meats. Do not store your condiments on shelves below meats. Do not store your condiments near any cleaners or chemicals. All these rules are designed to prevent the condiments from becoming contaminated and harming your customers.

Other Healthy Food Handling and Equipment Guidelines

Hand Washing

Most diseases and bacteria are passed from human to human on by unwashed hands. Proper hand sanitation is critical when serving food to others.

A mobile food vending cart therefore should have liquid hand soap in a dispenser and disposable, single use paper towels readily available at all times.

Never touch food with your bare hands. Always handle food using gloves, wrappers, tongs, forks, spatulas, spoons or other utensils. Hot dog cart operators usually use tongs to pick up sausages. The bun is held in the hand but in a napkin or disposable wrapper.

Always keep a clean supply of spare utensils in a clean covered container. If anything falls to the ground or floor whether it is food or a utensil, it is then considered contaminated. Such food must be discarded. Such a contaminated utensil must be washed in soapy warm water and then sanitized before being used again.

As a professional food handler you are legally required to wash your hands immediately after using the toilet, coughing, sneezing, blowing your nose, handling money, after touching garbage or any unsanitary or toxic item. You must also wash your hands after eating, drinking, smoking, washing dishes, washing other equipment, sweeping or mopping the floor. You must also wash your hands after handling raw, fresh or frozen meat or any other food items, and even before putting on gloves to handle food.

You must also wash your hands when you re-enter the food service work area (the vending cart) even if you have just washed your hands in another place such as in a nearby washroom.

Hands should be washed using hot water and soap. Hand washing water must be hot, at least 43°C (110°F). You should lather your hands for 15-20 seconds. Take care to remove any dirt or contamination under the finger nails. Then dry your hands using a single use towel such as disposable paper towels. Multi-use cloth hand towels such as are used in private homes are not acceptable in the food service industry as these can store and transfer contamination and bacteria.

The use of gloves should never be seen as an easy way to avoid proper hand sanitation. Gloves can also become contaminated and spread harmful bacteria. For example, you would not use gloves to handle raw meat and then also use them to serve cooked food. Doing so would transmit bacteria from the raw food to the cooked food.

Keep your finger nails clean and trimmed short. It is unwise to wear rings on fingers as these can carry food particles and bacteria and transfer them onto clean food. Rings can also cut through gloves and make them useless.

Personal Health and Hygiene

Do not work in food preparation when you are sick. If you are sick you are much more likely to contaminate the food that you are serving your customers and thus pass on your sickness to others.

Therefore do not work in food service when you are sneezing, have a runny nose, have a sore throat, have diarrhea, are vomiting, experiencing dark urine or yellowing of the skin (jaundice) or if you have a fever. Do not handle food if you have an infected cut or a burn, a wound oozing pus or boil. Always wear food service gloves over any cuts, abrasions, or burns. Make sure these gloves do not become worn or torn.

Wear proper headgear such as a hat or hairnet. These must be worn to contain hair and prevent it from falling into and contaminating the food. (You do not want your customer to find your hair in their food. That would cost you customers, to say the least.)

Do not smoke, chew tobacco, eat or drink when serving or preparing food. To do any of these activities you must leave the food preparation and serving area (the food cart). Move a short distance away from your cart to eat, drink or smoke. Remember to wash your hands when you return to the food cart.

It is, however, usually allowable to drink from a closed beverage container while in the food service area. Such a beverage container should have a lid on it. It must also have a handle to prevent your hand from touching the area that your mouth touches, or a drinking straw that would accomplish the same purpose. Always wash the beverage container between uses or discard it after use.

Your work clothing must be kept clean and neat. Soiled clothing can store and then transfer bacteria. A fresh set of clean clothes must be worn each day or each work shift.

Maintaining Clean Equipment

Most health departments require a roof, canopy or umbrella to be installed over the food cart. This is to protect the food service area from airborne contamination including rain, dust, falling leaves, blowing debris and bird droppings. It should cover all exposed foods.

Always keep your food preparation and serving areas clean. Your food equipment and utensils must be kept clean throughout the work day.

Extra tongs, spoons, spatulas and other food handling utensils should be kept in the food cart in case these utensils are dropped or otherwise become contaminated.

The entire cart must be cleaned at the end of the work day. Some health departments will require that the cart be taken back for cleaniong to an approved service base (which may be your home garage or a commissary such as a restaurant or deli). The entire cart should be cleaned with warm soapy water, rinsed and then sanitized.

Clean and sanitize all your food service utensils at the end of each day. Then store them in a clean washable covered container. Do not mix clean and used utensils in the same container as the soiled utensils would contaminate the clean ones.

A sanitizing solution can be made from 1 part chlorine bleach in 200 parts water (or 1 fluid ounce of chlorine bleach in 1 Imperial gallon of water or 5 ml of chlorine bleach in 1 Litre of water). Otherwise off-the-shelf, pre-mixed chemical sanitizing solutions that can be purchased from food supply or cleaning supply stores.

During your work day clean up spilled condiments and any food wrappers to avoid attracting insects and other pests. Keep the area around your food cart looking neat and clean.

Always have a good supply of food wrappers and proper utensils available to your customers. This will ensure that they never directly touch any food items with their hands.  Kindly provide instructions to customers as needed so they maintain food hygiene and do not contaminate the food such as the condiments. Post a sign that reads “Please Do Not Touch The Food With Your Hands! Use The Utensils Provided.”

You must have a sturdy garbage container of suffiecient size to hold all the waste produced by your operation.It must have a self closing lid or flip top. Never allow it to over-flow. Dispose of any garbage as required or empty it daily. Sanitize the garbage container at the end of each day to prevent odour.

Hand and Ware Washing Sinks

The local health department will likely require that you to have sinks with hot and cold running water with mixing faucets installed on your hot dog cart or inside your mobile food stand for washing hands and utensils. The health department may allow gravity fed water from a fresh water holding tank or they may specify an electric pump driven pressurized water system. The Sakatoon Health Department specifies that a mobile food vending cart must be able to produce hot water at a minimum temperature of 43°C (110°F).

Many health departments actually require mobile vending carts to have 3 sinks on the cart. One sink would be devoted solely to hand washing. Another sink is strictly for washing and rinsing utensils and another sink for sanitizing the utensils in chlorine bleach. The health department may specify the exact size of these sinks or they may simply require them to be of sufficient size for the utensils being used. Check carefully with your local health authorities for the regulations in your area.

Sinks should never be used for storage. Hand washing sinks must never be used for washing utensils and ware washing sinks must never be used for washing hands.

Fresh and Waste Water Tanks

The local health department will specify how much fresh potable (drinkable) water you are required to carry in your mobile food cart. They will also specify how large the waste water (grey water) tank must be. It is usually about 15% larger than the fresh water tank. For example, the Saskatoon Health Department specifies that a mobile food vending cart must have a minimum fresh water storage capacity of 18.9 Litres (4.2 Imperial Gallons) and minimum waste water storage capacity of 28.4 Litres (6.4 Imperial Gallons).

Many health departments specify that these tanks are clear or have a level gauge so that the cart operator can easily monitor his water supply while he works.

These storage tanks should be designed to allow easy cleaning and sanitizing as well as filling and emptying.

The waste water tank should be emptied at the end of the work day at an approved sanitary sewer drain. Never empty the waste tank onto the road, side walk, or grass.

Other Operational Requirements

The local health department may require that you post your license on your food cart in plain view.

Your food cart can be inspected by the department at any time. Always have it in a “passing grade” condition. A failing grade or health code violation is of public record and is very bad publicity. It will hurt business.

The local health department may require annual inspections for you to maintain your license.

The health department may require that you have an approved base of operations from which the cart is serviced, loaded and cleaned. This base of operations will also be subject to health inspection. In some instances, this base may be a garage in your home or it may be a commissary. A commissary is a food establishment that lets you use its facilities to service the cart including loading food and fresh water and dumping waste water. It is often where you purchase some of your food supplies and store foods.

The health department usually requires that a mobile food stand be located within a certain distance of a washroom for the use of operators.

Most health departments also specify that mobile food stand operators must not provide tables, chairs or seating for use of patrons in the area of the cart or vehicle.