Food trucks not so free

By Scott Mooneyham | Dec 07, 2012

RALEIGH — All apologies to brick-and-mortar restaurants, but the best burrito that I've ever eaten came from Eduardo's Taco Stand, a food truck operation on Ocracoke Island.

Maybe some state legislators have eaten there as well. Or, perhaps some other food truck business wowed them.

Whatever the case, last summer, an omnibus regulatory reform bill passed by state lawmakers included a provision designed to free up food truck operators from a requirement that they be connected, in some manner, to a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

The old law required that a restaurant or commissary serve as a "base of operations" so that food preparation could occur there.

The legislation eliminated the requirement as long as the food trucks met "sanitation requirements of a permitted commissary."

That wording has proven problematic.

The Carolina Journal, a publication of the conservative John Locke Foundation, reports that some local health inspectors have interpreted the language to require food trucks to have bathrooms and grease traps unless they are still tied to a physical, commercial food-prep building.

The interpretation has essentially rendered the new law meaningless, at least for a while.

The Carolina Journal piece noted that state health officials are conversing with the state attorney general's office to figure out how to interpret the law.

Meanwhile, as with a lot of state laws, a rules-making process is underway to establish guidelines for how the law is to be enforced.

Food truck operators, though, worry that draft guidelines use vague language that could be interpreted to put onerous restrictions on the trucks. The wording, for example, requires that trucks have adequate storage for "all food supplies, utensils, equipment, and employee belongings."

But what is adequate? And why should employee belongings be the worry of health department officials?

More restrictions, obviously, were not the intent of the law.

Two years ago, after Republicans took control of the state legislature, they made clear that they planned to reduce government regulation and end needless rules.

Their ideas caused considerable consternation among environmentalists, who worry that those efforts will ultimately harm the environment and threaten public health. But some of their proposals, like the new food truck rule, were aimed at hurdles that appear to have little value in protecting the public.

At an early news conference on the subject, I asked whether the real problem wasn't the occasional government inspector who takes state laws and rules and applies them in ways never intended by those who wrote the laws and rules.

The question was based on any number of conversations with restaurant owners, electricians, plumbers and other business owners.

But maybe I had it wrong too.

Perhaps laws and rules that aren't clearly written are part of the problem, giving too much leeway to those who enforce them.

Then again, those who enforce the laws ought to be aware of their intent.

I suspect that, when it comes to food trucks, legislators will be letting their intent be known a little more forcefully come next year.