Mythbusting the IJ Way: Latest Report Proves Street Food is Safe

July 25, 2014

By Dick Carpenter

Longtime fans of IJ have heard us say, “We change the world, and we have fun doing it!” That is especially true on our strategic research team, where we often engage in our own version of Mythbusters. Like the popular television show, we put myths (often masquerading as fact) about free speech, property rights, economic liberty and school choice to the test with cutting-edge social-science research. Our latest edition tests a long-standing myth used by city officials to justify draconian regulations on food vendors: food trucks and carts are unsanitary and unsafe.

Our results show quite the opposite.

In IJ’s latest strategic research report, Street Eats, Safe Eats: How Food Trucks and Carts Stack Up to Restaurants on Sanitation, Senior Research Analyst Angela Erickson examined several years of food-safety inspections from seven major American cities: Boston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Louisville, Miami, Seattle and Washington, D.C. In each of these cities, mobile vendors are subject to the same health codes and inspection regimes as restaurants. Using sophisticated econometrics, she compared the average number of violations among food trucks and carts to those of restaurants and other food establishments after controlling for things like weather, variations in traffic and seasonal fluctuations in demand.

In every city, food trucks and carts averaged fewer violations than restaurants, and in all of the cities except Seattle, the differences were statistically significant. Not to worry in Seattle, though: the results simply mean mobile vendors there were just as clean as restaurants.

Like so many of our reports, Street Eats, Safe Eats is on the leading edge of an important legal and policy issue, as no one else has done research like this. Angela’s complex analysis crushes the pitiful anecdotal comparisons made by food-vendor critics.

For example, last year a Boston Globe article portrayed food trucks as comparatively unsafe using little more than anecdotes and simple percentages. It is not too surprising, then, that our opposite results, using more advanced analyses, were featured in the Boston Globe, Metro Boston and Boston Magazine, plus an op-ed Angela wrote for the Boston Herald.

The same thing happened in Louisville, where a television newscast last year featured the city’s chief health inspector laughing at the idea of eating from a food truck and claiming—with no evidence—“We feel you can operate safer from an actual building.” Results from Street Eats, Safe Eats showing food trucks in the city are actually safer than restaurants were highlighted in the Louisville Courier-Journal and Business First of Louisville.

City councils that make decisions about vendor regulations often rely on little more than the opinions of health inspectors and pressure from vendors’ brick-and-mortar restaurant competition. That’s why testing myths with sound research like Street Eats, Safe Eats is so important.

The flawed idea that street food is unsafe should not justify burdensome, anti-competitive regulations like bans and limits on when and where mobile vendors may work. Bans and limits do not improve public health—they stifle entrepreneurship, destroy jobs and limit consumer choice. The recipe for clean and safe food trucks and carts is simple—the same inspections used for restaurants.

Myth busted.

Dick Carpenter is IJ’s director of strategic research.

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