New rules for mo­bile ven­dors are shap­ing up

more safe­guards, new fees to be sug­gested to coun­cil panel to­day

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Juan Castillo

What more can city govern­ment do to en­sure pub­lic health and safety in the boom­ing mo­bile food vend­ing in­dus­try? And what makes Austin weird?

Ques­tions about govern­ment over­sight, food safety and, yes, Austin cul­ture rose to the fore of a de­bate trig­gered more than a year ago as the city be­gan weigh­ing whether to toughen the city’s mo­bile food vend­ing or­di­nance.

To­day, the Austin/Travis County Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Depart­ment is sched­uled to present a set of fi­nal rec­om­men­da­tions to a City Coun­cil com­mit­tee.

The rec­om­men­da­tions seem to sat­isfy some ven­dors who were concerned that more reg­u­la­tion could come with higher fees and ex­penses, pos­si­bly forc­ing some out of busi­ness. But the pro­posed changes aren’t likely to end the de­bate; a rep­re­sen­ta­tive for one ven­dor said he ex­pects to press his case that more safe­guards are needed.

The pro­pos­als would add at least $250 in new per­mit­ting fees. A pro­posal con­sid­ered ear­lier re­quir­ing ven­dors to show proof of prod­uct li­a­bil­ity will not be rec­om­mended.

“Our goal was to en­sure pub­lic health. That was our pri­or­ity,” said Shan­non Jones, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor for pub­lic health with the Austin/ Travis County health depart­ment, which led the city re­view. “How­ever, we had to bal­ance the eco­nom­ics of what we were do­ing, al­low­ing

Con­tin­ued from A for busi­nesses to con­tinue to func­tion and to meet the pub­lic health thresh­old.”

Un­der the rec­om­men­da­tions, mo­bile food ven­dors would have to com­ply with new re­quire­ments, in­clud­ing:

Pro­vide proof of a state sales tax per­mit.

Pass in­spec­tion by the Fire Depart­ment.

Doc­u­ment use of cen­tral food prepa­ra­tion fa­cil­i­ties and pro­vide no­ta­rized cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of the fa­cil­i­ties.

Pro­vide an itin­er­ary of truck routes.

Pro­vide writ­ten per­mis­sion for em­ploy­ees to use re­strooms at the busi­nesses from which the ven­dors lease space.

The three-mem­ber City Coun­cil health and hu­man ser­vices com­mit­tee could vote to send the rec­om­men­da­tions to the full coun­cil for a pos­si­ble de­ci­sion later this sum­mer.

That would be a mile­stone in a lengthy process that in­cluded sev­eral meet­ings with mo­bile ven­dors, some of whom in May sought to draw dis­tinc­tions be­tween those who op­er­ate the trendy fixed-lo­ca­tion trail­ers and those who cater to work­ers at con­struc­tion sites and of­fice tow­ers.

Trailer op­er­a­tors com­plained that new lay­ers of govern­ment reg­u­la­tion were un­nec­es­sary and would hurt the busi­nesses that add to Austin’s charm.

State food es­tab­lish­ment code, how­ever, does not dif­fer­en­ti­ate based on where mo­bile ven­dors op­er­ate, and nei­ther will the city, Jones said.

But an ear­lier pro­posal that would have added over­sight by other city de­part­ments, po­ten­tially adding ex­pen­sive new fees — the source of some of the fixed trailer op­er­a­tors’ main ob­jec­tions — was dropped.

“I don’t to­tally agree with all of them, but I think for the good of the en­tire group, they’re good,” Bob Gen­try, coowner of Torchy’s Tacos, said of the pro­posed rules. Torchy’s op­er­ates a trailer in a South First Street food court.

But Paul Sal­daña, a con­sul­tant who rep­re­sents Tom Ram­sey, the owner of a Pflugerville-based com­pany that leases a fleet of trucks to in­de­pen­dent op­er­a­tors, said the city could do more to pro­tect health and safety.

Sal­daña said he would present pho­tos at to­day’s hear­ing de­pict­ing city code vi­o­la­tions by what Ram­sey claims are rogue mo­bile ven­dors.

The city be­gan its re­view af­ter Ram­sey urged the City Coun­cil in May of last year to add teeth to the mo­bile food vend­ing or­di­nance.

Ram­sey said that he had iden­ti­fied 42 reg­u­la­tions im­posed in other Texas cities, but not in Austin, and that while the mo­bile food vend­ing busi­ness was ex­plod­ing — the city counted 648 ven­dors in 2006, a num­ber ex­pected to dou­ble by Oc­to­ber — il­le­git­i­mate ven­dors were flood­ing the mar­ket and ex­ploit­ing gaps in Austin’s rules.

Sal­daña said the city is is­su­ing per­mits to ven­dors who are not us­ing cen­tral food prepa­ra­tion fa­cil­i­ties as re­quired by state rules and se­lec­tively en­forc­ing cer­tain pro­vi­sions, such as those deal­ing with san­i­ta­tion and waste dis­posal.

Jones said that the city’s ex­pec­ta­tions are the same for all ven­dors but that the state rules al­low the city some flex­i­bil­ity as long as pub­lic health de­mands are met.

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