How clean is your favourite ice cream van?
From ice cream vans and mobile chippers to the more upmarket falafel tents good weather gives us a great appetite for al fresco dining are they tightly regulated?
Published 22/06/2014 | 02:30
Ice cream van operators up and down the country went 'Loop the Loop' when they heard Senator Catherine Noone's recent proposal to regulate their chiming.
Here they were handing out 99s to the over-heated youth of Ireland and instead of being complimented for their hard work and entrepreneurial spirit they were being accused of employing 'aggressive marketing' techniques.
"I'm not sure where Senator Noone was going with that one," remarks Vicki Williams who runs Glanmire Ices with her brother Paul. The Cork-based business provides ice cream vans, burger and grill units, as well as candy floss and popcorn stalls, for events across the country.
This week they're at the Fota Island golf course for the Irish Open. How times have changed. The last place you would have expected to see such a mobile outlet in times past was at one of the country's most upmarket golf courses. Who knows, perhaps Rory will pop by for a choc ice?
Senator Noone's solo run may have melted faster than a Mr Freeze left out in the sun but it did shine a light on the entire mobile catering unit sector across Ireland – from the standard chip van to the high end food stalls – which have become part and parcel of market fairs across the country in recent years.
So how regulated is the entire sector and is the food and produce they serve safe for the consumer?
It's been a bumper week for vendors, especially those based at beaches and sun spots across the country, but often the vans sit unused.
"We really do have to make hay while the sun shines," explains Vicki.
"Normally we don't trade between October and January unless we're booked for a specific corporate function or event. So when the weather is good we work constantly, seven days a week if needs be. While last year was great from a weather point of view it came after three summers of rain, so we have to maximise our income when the sun shines."
Glanmire Ices has been on the go for 40 years and Vicki says they've never once fallen foul of the environmental health officers.
"We know the importance of maintaining the very highest standards of food hygiene. One bad report would damage our business and so we are obsessed with making sure everything is clean, our food items come from reputable suppliers and that all our staff (of which there are 20) are properly trained."
Mobile catering units must first register with the Health and Safety Authority and will then be inspected by an environmental health officer.
Standards over the years have improved dramatically and last year out of 119 food outlets which were closed down by the Food Safety Authority in Ireland, just six were mobile operators.
Food businesses, be they mobile of fixed, are normally asked to stop trading where there is a 'grave and immediate danger to public health'.
For chip van owner Tommy Kennedy, who operates in the south west, the regular health checks are something of a blessing in disguise.
"Nowadays, you have to have everything above board, it's no harm but I suppose it means more work for us. It's improved the quality and safety of the food you can now buy from your average chip van – years ago the food left a lot to be desired."
Indeed, if the chip van industry had its own union back in 1996 they'd surely have tried to get 'that' scene banned from The Van.
In the film, based on the book by Roddy Doyle, a balding customer is served a nappy instead of a piece of fish by an unrepentant Larry (played by Colm Meaney) who's helping out his mate Brendan in their 'Bimbo's Burgers' van. The confusion emerged after Sharon changed her baby near the food preparation area – the very thought making viewers wince.
"I'll give ya your money back and a can of coke," said Larry to the furious customer.
Nowadays, customer care is as important a trait of the mobile food vendor as serving up a tasty bit of grub itself.
The range of foods available has also improved dramatically. With coffee growing in popularity especially amongst white-collar consumers the accompanying pastries, mini-bites and healthy snacks have been jumping off the mobile shelves.
Aidan McGuire, a fund accountant who works in the IFSC in Dublin, told the Irish Independent that he rarely visits a café or restaurant for lunch these days; instead picking up lunch on the go at one of the many mobile carts in the area.
"The quality of coffee, pizzas, cheese, falafels, cookies or sandwiches you can get on the street is as good as anything you can get in a fixed establishment. Often it's less expensive too and you don't have to wait as long to be served."
During the economic downturn many of those who lost their jobs believed becoming self-employed in the mobile food sector was a route back to work – but all too often they discovered profits in the industry can only be made in the long-term.
"You did see some lads who'd been made redundant investing in equipment thinking they'd make a fortune but it's so difficult to make money in this business unless you give total commitment.
"You can't take any shortcuts, the customers are more savvy now and will vote with their feet so everything you offer has to be top notch," says Vicki Williams.
In Galway Stephen Corbet, primary school teacher and owner of Event food explains that local authorities don't always make it easy for mobile food operators to trade.
"Along the promenade at Salthill no one is allowed to operate. Even though there's a demand from people visiting the beach the council won't issue licences, it doesn't make sense. They're preventing us from doing our work during peak season," he said.
For now then the jingles will continue to chime and the burgers will still be flipped but mobile traders will be looking to the heavens each morning hoping that continued sunshine drives sweltering children and famished revellers to their counters.
Five steps to a safe 99
If the van, mobile or stall you're looking at appears unclean, the chances are food hygiene may also be questionable.
Make sure the server wears gloves when handling ingredients for your burger or slice of pizza. And, if opting for a meat product, check first that it's cooked right through.
Lack of Hot water
Some mobile units may not be able to wash cooking implements in hot water thereby jeopardising food hygiene.
Unkempt hair or unwashed hands wouldn't be tolerated in a restaurant setting and it shouldn't be at a mobile unit either.
If the mobile unit has limited refrigeration facilities this should sound alarm bells.
Unhappy with the quality of food or hygiene at a mobile catering unit you visited? You can alert the Food Safety Authority by calling their advice line on 1890 33 66 77. For more information on regulations and guidelines for the mobile catering industry visit www.fsai.ie.