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Saturday, March 25, 2023

Make the Smart Choice

The Department of Environmental Health works hard to protect the public from the unseen dangers associated with improper food handling and cross contamination. Preventing foodborne illness is our main objective. But we can’t do it alone! The “Make the Smart Choice” public education campaign was designed to increase public awareness about the dangers of purchasing and consuming food sold by illegal vendors.

Roadside Vending - Make the Smart Choice

Unpermitted food vendors are those vendors that do not obtain a permit from the Department of Environmental Health and operate in a manner that compromises food safety. These operations are usually found outdoors, in vacant lots, on street corners or roaming door to door through neighborhoods. Sometimes the vending takes place out of the trunk of a car. The following health concerns are commonly associated with illegal vendors:

  • Food stored and prepared directly on the dirt
  • Little or no protection from airborne contaminants
  • No electricity
  • No potable water
  • No restrooms
  • No handwashing stations
  • No dish sinks
  • No refrigeration or hot holding equipment
  • No thermometers
  • Build-up of garbage and food debris on the ground
  • Vermin and insects
  • No method of tracing food back to its original source
  • No food safety training for employees

There is an elevated risk for illness to be transmitted through food sold in this manner. Without bathrooms, the vendors are forced to go to the bathroom on the ground and resume their food preparation activities without washing their hands. Garbage and discarded food are allowed to blow about or accumulate on the ground adding to the sanitation problems generated by this activity. 

The food that is sold by these unpermitted vendors is often held out of safe temperature ranges, comes from an unknown or unapproved source, and may be contaminated due to vermin (such as cockroaches and rats) or poor food handling techniques. There is no one inspecting these types of operations therefore there is no way to tell if the food is safe.

Many customers view the roadside food vendors as a chance to purchase “ethnic” foods not found in many commercial markets. They often do not understand the risks associated with eating food prepared by these vendors. Some may wrongly assume that the vendors actually are licensed and inspected by the Health Department. How can you Make the Right Choice and lessen your risk of foodborne illness by ensuring you are only buying food from a vendor with a valid health permit?  See below…

If you are considering purchasing food from a roadside vendor, there are some things you can look for that will tell you that the vendor has been approved by the Health Department and is being regularly inspected.

  1. Enclosure – all food preparation must take place within an enclosure to prevent contamination by birds, dust, insects, or other airborne hazards.Decal
  2. Steamer – an enclosed steamer is capable at keeping food hot at 135º F or above.
  3. Refrigerator – important for cold food to be held at 41º F or below.
  4. Handwashing station with soap and paper towels – handwashing is one of the most important ways to prevent foodborne illness.
  5. Identification signs – these signs let the customers know who they are buying food from and where it was made. If a customer feels that they got sick from a permitted vendor they can call the Department of Environmental Health and file a complaint. With the information, we will know exactly how to find the vendor to abate the problem and investigate the complaint.
  6. Permit decal – all permitted mobile food facilities will have this sticker posted on one side of the cart. The permits must be renewed annually and the color of the decal changes every year to make it easier to see if the cart has been approved for the current year.

Food Cart
This picture is an example of a permitted mobile food facility, or cart. The arrows point to the important features that will assist the operator in preparing food in a safe manner.


Check out our informational bulletin and Mobile Food Facility Guideline Book (English | Spanish) for step by step instructions on how to obtain your Environmental Health permit. If you have any questions regarding opening a mobile food business please contact our Mobile Food Facility Plan Check Specialist, Jeff Lojeski at 760-320-1048 or by email.

It’s never too early to learn how to “Make the Smart Choice”. The Department has also developed educational materials aimed at children. We invite all kids to become Jr. Inspectors and help keep food safe!

If you have seen an unpermitted vending operation and would like to assist us by reporting it, please use our online complaint form. You may also file complaints on permitted facilities if you believe they are operating outside of their permit limitations.

The FDA, USDA, and CDC have joined forces to develop a food defense initiative to assist food facility operators in training their employees on what they can do to keep the food supply protected and safe. The name of this campaign is Employees First because employees really are the first line of food defense. Preventing intentional contamination of food is vital in the defense of our country and educating our first line is a critical step. Facilities that have no food defense protocol in place may find themselves vulnerable to attack. For more information visit the FDA’s website where you can print posters to post in your break room or other areas of your facility and watch the 12 minute animated training video available through the Employees First campaign.


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