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2 Investigators: Food Cart Dangers

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Are food carts safe? A 2 Investigators report suggests they may not be. (CBS)

Are food carts safe? A 2 Investigators report suggests they may not be. (CBS)

Pam Zekman Pam Zekman
Pulitzer-prize winning reporter Pam Zekman serves on CBS 2 Chicago’s...
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CHICAGO (CBS) -- You see them along the streets in the neighborhoods of Chicago: food carts selling everything from tacos to frozen ice drinks.

But there’s absolutely no city regulation or inspection of food carts in Chicago. So is it safe to eat from these carts?

The 2 Investigators checked some of them out and found potential health and safety violations at each of the eight food carts they visited with an undercover camera.

At one location, a group of tourists from Mississippi seemed to be enjoying a Mexican corn specialty called “elotes” — steamed corn, mixed with mayonnaise, butter and other toppings.

But food safety expert Kantha Shelke reviewed CBS 2 video and pointed out something that was not so good: a tub of mayonnaise sitting out in the 98-degree heat.

“The tub has been sitting out for an extended period of time, not chilled,” Shelke told Zekman. “So, it could also not only be loaded with bacteria, but the bacteria in it could be multiplying.”

At a coconut drink stand, the server used bare hands to scoop ice for a drink and worked on a dirty countertop to cut up the meat inside and serve it with condiments to eat.

“Even if I was in the prime of health I would be very concerned about the kind of bacteria I would be inviting into my body,” Shelke says.

Pre-made tamales are a popular offering at many carts. CBS 2 checked out one operated by a woman who said she makes them in her kitchen.

The problem, Shelke says, is that there’s no way to know if the product was chilled or reheated to the right temperature and kept at the proper level of at least 140 degrees (the temperature at which bacteria is killed).

The tamale CBS 2 purchased was only 127 degrees inside.

As for the question about whether the city of Chicago should license and inspect vendors like these, Shelke says they indeed they should.

“It’s a social responsibility for the city to make sure that these food carts also are regulated and are safe for consumers everywhere,” she says.

City officials say they are aware of the problem.

“Unlicensed food vendors pose a public health risk and are subject to a variety of enforcement measures,” the city says.

Penalties include fines and possible impoundment of the food cart.

As usual, the best advice for consumers is: Buyer beware.

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