Who Will Protect Us from Tainted Food Trucks?

What the mobile food industry needs is market reputation not government regulation

My Haitian babysitter told me to get into the car, an old sedan with peeling paint, driven by a stranger. She’d hailed it, like a cab, and it pulled over for us, like a cab, but it didn’t look like a cab.

“I thought you said we were taking a taxi,” I said.

“This is a taxi.” She pushed me into the back seat.

“It doesn’t look like a taxi,” I whispered.

“Real taxis don’t come into this neighborhood,” she said. “This is a gypsy.”

I thought she was describing the ethnicity of the driver. Only later, listening to radio news reports about city police campaigns against gypsy cab drivers did I understand that my babysitter had dragged me into a mobile version of the black market.

That brief ride through a 1970s New York City ghetto was my only time in a gypsy cab: a bewildered little boy forced into the car of a man I didn’t know. It felt dangerous in a way that even hitchhiking in the Middle East when I was a teenager did not.

So why do I use Uber and Lyft without hesitation? Why do I prefer gray-market ride sharing with unlicensed strangers to hailing a municipally sanctioned taxi?

At this point, my confidence is based on past experience: the dozens of Uber drivers I’ve had were far more pleasant than the hundreds of cab drivers I’ve ridden with. But even my very first time with Uber, I got in without hesitation.

Peer-to-peer apps have made reputation markets real and robust — at least in certain corners of the service economy. Uber drivers have far greater incentive to make me happy than any cab driver ever has. More than their tip depends on it: the rating I give them can affect their future earnings.

Cab companies could have adopted reputation apps years ago as a way to outdo their competitors. But they weren’t worried about competition. City licensing often creates a protective cartel for current cabbies. That’s why Uber and Lyft became so popular so fast: the market — meaning everyone looking for a ride — wanted what the cab industry felt no need to offer us.

Will food trucks be the next service to escape the archaic model of licensing and regulation?

“Illegal Food Trucks Worry Health Officials,” reports the Herald-Sun of Durham, North Carolina. “Unlicensed food trucks operating illegally in Durham have health officials concerned that customers could end up getting sick.”

One such official, Chris Salter, told the paper that people selling food from the back of SUVs have posed food-poisoning risks to the public for years: “Did they slaughter a chicken in their backyard and cut it up on a piece of plywood? You just don’t know.”

The solution Salter proposes, of course, is stricter policing and greater regulation. After all, if cops and bureaucrats don’t protect the public, who will?

To the generation that reads newspapers and waits in line for taxis, the argument makes sense: when you eat in a restaurant, you may not know for sure that the food is safe, but the restaurant isn’t going anywhere; even without a health inspector’s oversight, restaurant owners have an incentive to protect their reputations. It’s not hard to spread the word that you got sick eating at Big Joe’s on the corner of 1st and Main. It’s a lot less helpful to say you ate a bad fajita out of the back of a faded green RAV4 in the abandoned parking lot.

When I used to take city cabs, the seats were filthy, the driving was reckless, and the drivers ranged from sullen to rude. But I felt relatively safe. I knew I could always write down the cabby’s name and medallion number. In theory, at least, I could report him and maybe someone would wag a finger at him. That seemed better than nothing.

Licensed food trucks offer a similar assurance: “Salter’s advice to the public is to look for the health grade card at food trucks if they’re unsure whether it’s operating legally. Since 2012, food trucks have been required to display the same cards as restaurants.”

Again, even without the health inspection required to get a permit and a health grade card, food truck owners don’t want to risk customers’ health for fear of losing their permits or having to display a lackluster “health grade” on their cards.

Government licensing acts as a sort of hampered reputation market. The food SUVs have no such incentives.

As in the case of cabbies versus Uber drivers, the legitimate food truck owners are on the side of the government officials: “Many of those owners are upset because the illegal trucks skirt regulation fees and cut into their business.”

Food trucks in Durham may not yet operate as a cartel — the way they are beginning to do in New York City, for example, where the number of food-truck licenses has been frozen for years — but the complaint is typical of the established players in a protected industry: upstarts with lower costs are threatening our profit margin!

But suppose you’re a foodie with fear of salmonella. Would you rather rely on an 11-month-old government report card or just check your food-truck app to see what your fellow foodies have to say? What sort of insurance does the owner carry — what third-party assurance is available? How’s their guacamole?

Don’t like this truck’s rating? The app will guide you to the next nearest truck serving similar fare.

Salter told the Herald-Sun, “We’re not trying to keep anybody from making a living. We’re trying to be fair and to protect the public.” So why is he offering 20th-century advice to consumers in the 21st century? Might he have any interests at stake other than public safety?

No doubt health officials would counter that the sharing economy is an option only for the privileged. It’s not like everyone has a smart phone, right? Right?

Many of the illegal vendors speak only Spanish, Salter told the Herald-Sun. And “many of them can’t read, so even if we pass out documents, they can’t read them.”

So who buys questionable chicken out of the back of an SUV operated by illiterate, Spanish-speaking strangers when Durham has so many government-approved food trucks with English-speaking staff?

Might those who choose to do so be similar to those who hailed gypsy cabs in the New York City of my youth?

“Real taxis don’t come into this neighborhood,” my babysitter had told me. I didn’t need to ask why. I didn’t want to be in that area either. But folks in the bad neighborhoods still needed rides, and they were willing to pay for them. There was extra risk involved for both parties, and the drivers couldn’t make the kind of money that licensed taxi drivers made, but driving a gypsy cab was better than their next-best option, so supply and demand met in illegal exchanges that benefitted both parties.

It’s safe to assume something similar is going on at the back of some of Durham’s SUVs.

These are most likely working people on the margins of the economy who don’t have the time or the money to seek a quick lunch elsewhere. If they’re buying their food from obviously unlicensed and uninspected vendors, that suggests that the higher-scale food trucks aren’t coming to their neighborhood — or that they charge considerably more than the illegal food.

The health officials aren’t protecting these people. At best, they are limiting their options. Worse, they could be driving economic exchanges further underground, where neither the government nor the market can effectively regulate safety.

Salter implies that vendor noncompliance is the result of ignorance, but it’s more likely buyers and sellers who don’t feel especially well protected by the legal system are taking measured risks to improve each other’s lives.

And I bet plenty of them do have smart phones. What they need now isn’t more ardent government oversight; it’s more reliable reputation markets. If there isn’t already an app for that, there soon will be. 

Further Reading

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