Reusable Containers and the Law

January 25, 2010

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.
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