December 12, 2019

The Board of Commissioners on Thursday reviewed policies and approved fees governing oversight of food cart pods in Multnomah County. The Board in October passed an ordinance that requires, for the first time, pod operators to provide carts with clean drinking water, control for pests, and trash and recycling service, among other obligations.

Environmental Health Director Jae Douglas, Ph.D., left, explains the fees associated with new food cart pod rules.

The Health Department will begin accepting applications for food cart pod licenses as soon as practicable after Jan. 1. Inspection will begin no earlier than July 1. Food cart pods will be required to post their permits publicly, and Environmental Health will post inspection results online.

“This feels like the final step in putting rules in place,” said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. “I really appreciate all the work that has gone into this, to make sure we’re protecting the public health and recognizing this great and vibrant part of our community.”

A food cart pod is defined as more than one mobile food cart on private or public property. The rules will apply to any property owner or manager who hosts more than one food cart on a single piece of property within a reasonable distance, for more than four hours in a 24-hour period. The rules do not apply to properties where mobile units operate far from one another and not as part of a cohesive unit.

Each pod will be required to submit a plan review, at a cost of $580. Pods with two to nine units will pay an annual permit fee of $405, while those with 10 or more units will pay $540. The fees will allow Environmental Health to recover costs associated with inspecting, monitoring and licensing food cart pods.

“Regardless of whether you have two carts or 50 carts, the plan review will take the same amount of time,” said Environmental Health Director Jae Douglas, Ph.D.

Comparable to rules governing restaurant inspections, each pod will be inspected twice a year, and reinspected if a violation is discovered. 

“We will return twice at no charge,” Douglas said. “If we have to do a third visit, we will charge.”

Mobile unit inspectors for Environmental Health had long reported trouble investigating violations such as rat infestations or wastewater spills in locations with multiple carts, finding it difficult to identify which cart or carts might be contributing to the problem. In 2017 the county’s Food Service Advisory Committee asked the board to require that pods obtain licenses and be subject to oversight. 

In January 2018, Environmental Health formed a workgroup to hash out concerns and then presented them to the Board in February 2019. 

The new rules regulate six areas of public health:

  • Drinking water: Pod owners or operators must provide safe potable water for food carts. 

  • Wastewater: Pod owners or operators must provide a control and response plan for spills.

  • Solid waste: Pod owners or operators must provide adequate trash and recycling service for cart operators and diners. 

  • Vectors: Pod owners or operators must have a pest management plan to prevent and respond to infestations by rodents, birds and insects. 

  • Setbacks: Pod owners or operators must establish and maintain safe distances between carts and between carts and the right of way to prevent accidents such as the spread of fire. 

  • Power: Pod owners or operators must provide safe and adequate electrical access to carts.

In crafting the new rules, Environmental Health struggled to find examples from other jurisdictions, restaurant inspection supervisor Jeff Martin said.

“We’ve scanned everywhere from the East Coast to the West Coast, even into Canada, to see if anyone has any kind of inspection for food cart pods,” he said. “No one is looking at vector control, solid waste, those kinds of things.”

Instead, Martin said, an advisory committee that met this year to develop specific rules used regulations for RV parks as a template for its policy. The committee, which included many from the initial 40-member group that developed the food cart pod recommendations, met for two four-hour sessions last month to draft the rules. 

“It was a great group of food cart and pod owners, agencies that represent mobile units, a lot of regulators,” Martin said. 

Commissioners praised the Environmental Health’s engagement with industry groups and local governments, and said the outcome gives them a sense of security.

“We love our food carts. Not so much our vermin and vectors of disease,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran said. 

“We all love our food carts,” Commissioner Lori Stegmann agreed. “And it’s reassuring to know when we go, they’re being inspected and are safe.”