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To keep on trucking, states streamline food truck licensing

Marsha Mercer, on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- As food trucks started rolling onto American streets a decade or so ago, states set health standards for them but left specific rules for mobile food vendors to cities and counties.

Now, faced with a complicated and sometimes conflicting system of local regulations, permits and inspections, some states are stepping in to cut the red tape.

In Utah, a new law that allows food trucks to move among localities with a single license goes into effect next month.

"As far as I know, we're the first state to take this step," said state Sen. Deidre Henderson, a Republican, who led the push for the statewide law. "Unlike most issues, this was difficult in that there were no states to model after."

In Maryland, the Legislature passed a less-sweeping bill that is being reviewed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. A new law in Washington state requires all mobile food trucks to have a state permit and inspection. The law removed a previous exemption for trucks used outside the state for six months or more. Other state measures are more targeted, such as allowing mobile food vending in commuter lots in one planning district in Virginia.

In all, 13 states have considered 37 bills involving some aspect of food truck regulation since 2015, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Only a handful of the bills became law, but none were controversial, said Doug Farquhar, NCSL's program director for environmental health.

Some 4,130 food trucks operate in nearly 300 American cities, with each truck averaging almost $291,000 in revenue, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

"As we get more and more food trucks, we get to the point where states need to regulate this industry," Farquhar said. Every state extended existing state health department rules for restaurants to food trucks, he said. But food trucks raise new questions.

For example, while ice cream stands, hot dog carts and lunch wagons serving pre-made sandwiches and snacks at construction sites are nothing new, gourmet food trucks that cook raw food on-site presented new food safety challenges, such as access to hot water for hand-washing and sanitary food preparation.

"If you're constantly out, where does the wastewater go and the trash? Those are novel problems you don't have with a stand-alone restaurant," Farquhar said.


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