Reusable Containers and the Law

Jonathan Amato

In most cases it’s against the law to bring your own reusable food containers to food carts. Read on…

Many of you have asked why Food Carts Portland doesn’t encourage people to bring their own reusable containers to food carts, and why we never mention the idea of cart discounts for customers who bring their own containers. In fact, we’ve gotten a bit of flack over it recently on our Facebook page and through reader emails. Well, the answer is simple: we don’t want to get anyone in trouble. That is, did you know getting food from a food cart with your own reusable container is against health regulations? Sadly, in most cases, it is. It goes against both Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules and subsequently, rules and laws Multnomah County must adhere to and enforce. It’s a lot of legalese and “governmentese” language to wade through but you can read the law here under Section 3-304.17.

Also, just to make sure we understood this clear and correctly, we called Multnomah County to get their take on it. They verified our findings in writing. Here’s the code the County provided to us in an email:

3-304.17 Refilling Returnables.

(A) A take-home food container returned to a food establishment may not be refilled at a food establishment with a potentially hazardous food.

(B) Except as specified in ¶ (C), a take-home food container refilled with food that is not potentially hazardous shall be cleaned as specified under ¶ 4-603.17(B).

(C) Personal take-out beverage containers, such as thermally insulated bottles, non-spill coffee cups, and promotional beverage glasses, may be refilled by employees or the consumer if refilling is a contamination-free process as specified under ¶¶ 4-204.13(A), (B), and (D).

The definition of Potentially Hazardous Foods can be found here. Refillable and Reusable Containers (according to Multnomah County) can be considered any container that is used more than one time. This could be anything from Tupperware, a  bowl or plate, a reused plastic take-out container, a baggie, foil that has been brought from home, or even a cardboard box, and the list goes on.

In summary, potentially hazardous foods include a wide variety of prepared and raw foods, especially those that must be maintained within certain temperature ranges. These are things like  soups or stews, certain salads (think potato, pasta salads and the like), dressings, sandwich fillings, cooked beans and some other vegetables, meats, seafood, dairy, etc, etc. Basically, pretty much most things delicious and served by food carts are considered to be potentially hazardous foods.


The reasoning for this rule is first and foremost a public health and safety issue. That’s a good thing. It means the government is doing the best they can to keep food establishments disease free and prevent a public health outbreak such as E-coli, hepatitis or botulism. The issue is that there is no control over what has been in those containers, and how or if they were washed. Here’s a scenario: A serving spoon from a cart comes in contact with a container that has a deadly strain of e-coli in it. That spoon then is used to serve a potato salad to 10 other customers, who then become seriously ill.

Is this law excessive? We can’t answer that, but it is still the law, none-the-less.

The only exception is for foods that are considered “non-hazardous” and hot beverages (the reason cafes allow you to bring in your own cup or mug). However, as explained above, non-hazardous foods are pretty limited.

So, here’s the deal. We understand there is a large amount of waste generated by plastic, paper and other types of to-go food containers. We are fully supportive of decreasing trash and promoting more environmental and sustainable methods for food carts. That said, Food Carts Portland strives to provide accurate and factual information to the public. We don’t feel right promoting something that is illegal and could get carts in trouble through health code violations possibly leading to fines or being shut down.

Anyone who wants to take this up with the FDA can contact them here . If you would like additional information you can also contact the Multnomah County Department of Environmental Health here.

Hope this helps explain where we are coming from and why we’ve been so silent on the issue.

Happy (and Healthy) Cart Eating,

Dieselboi and Cuisine Bonne Femme, Food Carts Portland.


  1. an alternative solution would be a re-usable container exchange. Buy a container once (or buy a few). Throw them in your car, put them in your backpack. When you pick up food, you drop off a container in exchange for the one that you are given. If you forget your container, buy this new one on the spot at cost, and you can return it later and get your deposit back if you want…

    Now getting everybody to agree on standard container and other health issues like allergies certainly will complicate this solution, but at least it might be a way to work around the FDA health restrictions.

  2. It’s a great idea, except, it’s still illegal.

  3. The Cart Whisperer says

    “When re-usable food containers become outlawed, only outlaws will have re-usable food containers.” That sounded better in my head by the way.

  4. It’s always bothered me that the food sold at the farmers market stands comes in disposable containers, with plastic utensils. The food cart problem is similar – surely we can come up with a solution.

    Untreated (no dye/wax/etc.) paper and cardboard can be composted. Not the most energy efficient solution, but better than a landfill. I’d like to see food stands offer separate bins for compostable waste – there are commercial composters that can handle stuff we wouldn’t necessarily put in our garden compost piles. For example, I believe Burgerville uses one for its compostable “plastic” beverage cups and other items.

  5. OregonJeff says

    @Cuisine Bonne Femme: To just blanket state it’s illegal is ridiculous as the law as it’s currently written does not specifically address the solution jerry is proposing. I think it could be very clearly articulated that the law, as it is currently written, is designed to address a customer having the food served to them in the same container they brought with them. That scenario is clearly the one that poses the health risk.

    However, jerry is suggesting the food cart use reusable containers that *they* have cleaned per the FDA rules, akin to the same rules that define cleaning requirements for reusable cooking items like pots, pans, grills, utensils, etc.. The individual buying the food would offer a “dirty” reusable container in exchange for the one the food vendor is serving the food in. Then, this “dirty” container would be cleaned per the FDA rules for use on some future date by another customer. If the consumer wished to have the food served in a reusable container but did not have one of their own to exchange that day, they’d simply buy another from the vendor.

    It very neatly circumvents the issue because the food vendor is the one providing the container. The receipt of an identical “dirty” container in trade for it is moot as the law says nothing about this sort of exchange. It only talks specifically about reuse/receipt from the customer (in spirit in the same visit).

    I suggest this solution be proposed to the FDA for comment.

  6. Perhaps you and Jerry can explore that in detail and get back to us? It would be a nice solution if its doable.

    Until then, I am going to stand by my statement. I did a lot of research and verified these details and interpretation with Multnomah County. I would suggest if you feel otherwise to contact the FDA and Multco yourself and indeed then have them interpret the regs for you. If you can then provide me with an email from the source stating otherwise, I’d be happy to retract my statement. Sorry, but I spent quite a bit of time researching and verifying this post, including several scenarios like the one Jerry mentioned. Until shown otherwise, my statement stands. Thanks.

    Although for the record, I too would love to see some kind of solution or work around, trust me. Will be excited to see what you two come up with.

  7. I’m such a wonk. Oregon Jeff, I think the misunderstanding might come from article A) and the term “Hazardous Foods”. It’s not about washing them which is for article B) non-hazardous foods. Read the above again. Sadly, hazardous foods are pretty much any prepared foods. Have also included the definition of those as well.

    Alas, it is a crazy and crazily written code which is why I too was so shocked by it and spent so much time researching and verifying what exactly it means.

    I’d love to see a whole bunch of people find some solutions to this.

  8. This has got to get changed. Probably will take the Office of the Mayor, BPS, and Health. But let’s get this changed. And ditch plastic “t-shirt” bags too.

  9. The container exchange idea, mentioned above, does seem like it would fulfill the spirit of the law, since it would involve the cart ensuring that the containers were adequately clean. However, I agree that this would appear to go against the letter of the law, as noted in the post.

    That said, there’s nothing stopping this site — or its readers — from engaging in advocacy within the laws as they are (as well as trying to get common-sense changes made to the laws so we could have reusable containers in some fashion). Myself, I routinely refuse plastic utensils, since I have a metal knife/fork/spoon at my desk at work. I’ll admit I use the napkins they give me, but most carts give too many, and I keep the extras and use when a cart doesn’t give me napkins. I suppose I could keep a stash of cloth napkins at work and take them home to be washed. And I don’t think there’s anything stopping me from taking a reusable sack to the carts in lieu of the plastic bags they often put the already-contained food in.

    And we as consumers can patronize carts that do their part to minimize waste, or talk to carts about changing their habits. I’ve often appreciated Brunch Box’s minimalist paper wrapping around sandwiches — there’s no need for a waxed cardboard box, as you might get elsewhere. Taco carts, also, tend to be pretty light on the waste.

    So as disappointed as I am by this post’s conclusions, I also feel inspired to do what I can within the law. So thanks for that.

  10. I previously worked as a food scientist before working for Multnomah County in administration. I received a degree in Food Science from Cal Davis. This conversation is a difficult one for me. The consumer often sees food processing, additives, etc. as food processors intent to increase profit. And while I do agree that additives like nitrates/nitrites in meat products known, potential health issues (i.e. not 100% of population will experience the symptom), the alternative from a food safety view point, e.g., outbreak of boutulism poisoning IS what food companies would be liable for… IF Americans were not so litigious, then maybe food could be more natural… I myself seek these types of options. But I’m an over informed consumer. I know what to expect… and when to seek appropriate medical attention (never had to do so!)
    But in the present state of the country, major food processors down to your single owner cart has to protect their lively-hood.
    A food scientist knows that just because something looks clean… doesn’t mean it’s “food safe.” On the flip side, just because something doesn’t look clean… doesn’t mean it’s not “food safe.” For example, I worked for two major tomato processors, in food microbiology and as a quality control supervisor… The FDA has bug part, rodent part specs… how much is “tolerable” per given weight of product. At first glance, consumers find this “gross.” How can any be allowed… rodent hair, bug parts, blah, blah…
    What I want others to know, your home-made items… no matter how well you think they were cleaned, will, on average, NOT pass USDA standards.
    I myself, use a pyrex glass dish for my food carts… but I also appropriately clean and sanitize my dish… It is easy for someone to say “YES, of course I washed my dish,” however, the majority of the population do not know what sanitized is from a USDA viewpoint.
    Hopefully, we’ll educate people about taking responsibility for their food safety… until then, businesses should protect themselves.

  11. Hmmmm….I’m all for reusing, but I can’t imagine where a food cart would put the kind of industrial dishwasher required for restaurant use.

  12. i heart fascism says

    Smart and responsible behavior is against the law? What a surprise.

    Must we obey? Bad law is no law.

    Let’s all stop being weak, pathetic followers, doing whatever the “authority” demands of us. Just an idea.

  13. I’m sure you know that FDA is Food & Drug Administration and not Federal Drug Administration.

    I agree its a shame about the waste with all the throw-away containers. However, I hadn’t thought about the possibility of cross-contamination from customer’s container to cart serving utensil.

  14. Thanks RM. Typo…fixed.

  15. @ i heart facism:
    So cart owners can forward any fines they receive to you?

    Grow up.

  16. Dishwasher says

    The number of food carts has already dropped 28% from a high in December 2008. Guess what? The fad is passing, and the question will soon be moot.

    And in case you were wondering–yes, people have gotten sick from eating at local food carts in Portland. In 2009, about 31 cases total were reported. Health inspectors routinely fail food carts here, cite them, and return to find they’ve failed again.

  17. Dishwasher. I am not sure where you are getting your numbers, but according to Multnomah county, the number of carts actually increased by 30% in 2009 to a total of 442. That’s right from the horse’s mouth.

  18. I would also love to hear, from Dishwasher, how the number of people who he / she claims to have gotten sick from food carts, compares to the numbers of people who’ve gotten sick from brick & mortar restaurants, from food they’ve bought from supermarkets, or from food they prepare in their own kitchens?

    As someone who regularly writes on and follows food safety issues, “about” 31 cases in 2009, in a city of almost 600,000 people and region of over 2.15 million, is positively infinitesimal when one considers the bigger picture.

  19. @Dishwasher
    “and the question will soon be moot.”

    Even assuming that your stats are correct, wouldn’t the # have to drop 100% for the question to be moot?

  20. Dishwasher–

    You might want to check with, oh, just about every other country in the world, to see if food carts/vendors/hawkers/etc. are a “passing fad”. The only reason it seems unusual here in Portland, and therefore might possibly be misconstrued as “a fad,” is because so many U.S. cities have adopted such arcane and anti-competitive laws when it comes to this brilliant and economical form of food service. Something I bet/hope will change as other cities take note of their success under Portland’s relatively sane/liberal approach to the idea.

    Most American cities have underused, otherwise unfortunate urban parking lots, and cart “pods” offer an economical, almost immediately-implementable way to return life and use to these otherwise urban-life-deadspots. No, not every cart in Portland will survive, just like not every restaurant will. But as something the rest of the world has shown can become an integral part of local culture and economics, some form of low-rent, direct cook-owner-to-customer relationship creating form of serving great food at reasonable prices will always exist.

    Can we infer you’re in the brick-and-mortar restaurant biz?

  21. Lol brick-and-morter indeed!!!!

  22. interestedplayer says

    What if foodcarts offered “to-go on a plate” which allows the customer to put the food themselves into their own dish. That way they aren’t serving to another persons dish, but a pre-washed plate. I realize that there should be consideration toward the cost to the foodcart on washing all those plates, the plates themselves, and storing them in such a small space. Would there be a cost-benefit to it? Maybe that’s an auxiliary side business. Clean plates and washing for food carts 🙂

  23. Sally Bell says


    There is a pilot for a reusable container program going on right now for the downtown food carts, which completely follows health code. More details to follow as the originator works out the kinks, but it’s an exciting shift in decreasing our food cart waste stream! More soon!

  24. @ Sally Bell –I hope you will indeed post more on this (and email me! see below). I’ve stumbled upon this page in researching this topic for myself. I live in Massachusetts.

    Currently I just don’t get take out any more, because I dislike the packaging so much. I very much want to support my local businesses, but not at the cost of the planet and our future. Help! We NEED legal solutions.

    If anyone has viable solutions, please email me! I’m all ears: amy –at–

  25. Chris King says

    Here is the idea. Of course it won’t work for every situation and the local codes need to be addressed.

  26. Solution: Have the food served in a reusable dish, which the customer can then transfer to their own re-usable container. Cart owner then washes said reusable dishes. Don’t complain you have no room for reusables and dish washing. Let’s get real here.

  27. Lawrence Blotzer says

    Whole Foods is telling me I can’t use my own glass container to buy freshly ground almond butter but that I have to use their plastic container instead. They cite FDA rules as the reason. Is this a correct interpretation of the FDA rule? Thanks


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