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Study: Farmers Market Employees Rarely Wash Hands

Employees serving ready-to-eat food at farmers markets may be putting consumers at risk by not washing their hands, according to a recent study from Purdue University.

Researchers observed 18 workers at different Indiana farmers markets and found that none used proper hand washing techniques when cooking or serving prepared foods to customers.

Out of the 900 transactions noted by researchers, 417 required hand washing according to state health code; however, only two attempts at hand washing were made. An “attempt” was defined as rinsing hands but not using soap or drying hands with a disposable towel, meaning that it did not constitute proper hand washing behavior.

“Compliance was practically non-existent,” note the study’s authors.

The study also found that the more tasks one employee had to perform, the more occasions arose where hand washing was needed (and missed). The authors suggest that if labor was divided among employees and each had a specific task, that risk would be minimized.

Adding employees will not help solve this problem, says the study, since those employees could still have different jobs to do.

Farmers markets are becoming an increasingly popular food source. In 1994 there were an estimated 1,755 farmers markets nationwide. By 2009 that number had grown to 5,274, and between 2009 and 2010 it increased by another 16 percent, putting the total at 6,132. The following year, over 1,000 more were established.

Conditions at farmers markets pose unique food safety risks. Products are often sold outdoors, where they are exposed to dirt, insects, and other potential contaminants.

One problem discovered at Indiana farmers markets was a lack of accessible potable water for hand washing, making it difficult for employees to wash hands while handling food.

Food safety at temporary food establishments such as farmers markets and fairs is not regulated consistently, notes the study.

Some temporary food stands are exempt from supervision by state health departments, and different states have different safety rules regarding transient food vendors.

In Indiana, individual food vendors at farmers markets are exempt from food establishment requirements, and “home-based vendors” are exempt from many of these regulations.

According to a 2006 survey of farmers market managers, only 14 percent of markets are regulated by state rules and bylaws.

The Purdue study was published in Food Protection Trend and is available here for a fee.

© Food Safety News
  • Mary Ann

    Hey c’mon, it’s a farmers market. They are exempt from FSMA and just about everything else so they don’t have to bother with anything they don’t care about. So what if prepared food vendors aren’t washing? None of the produce vendors wash their hands or anything else for that matter. When do you suppose was the last time they hosed out the back of the truck or washed the bags and boxes they haul stuff around in? When do you figure they last washed their hands — anytime since before breakfast? Even since relieving themselves last? They don’t need to worry about it because how many shoppers who are carrying around diapered kids have washed their hands before looking at food, mauling it over and putting back on the tables for you to take home to your family? What about the dogs running wild all over the place — when is the last time they were hosed off, do you suppose? Hey, it’s local germs so it is all good for you, worth the extra price, no?

  • Inconvenience drives poor hand hygiene at outdoor events. Workers would wash more often if it were convenient and didn’t require leaving their post.
    I am hopeful that the FDA will eventually fully support a waterless handwashing protocol originally developed for the military, called SaniTwice. http://www.handwashingforlife.com/handsonsystem/sanitwice
    This is a documented solution for Farmers Markets, Petting Zoos, Schools during Water Outages…

  • Doghouse Dave

    I was harangued by my significant other into paying out some quality time strolling together through our local farmers market last weekend. Nothing looked so very special and all of it was hideously overpriced. Now that you mention the hand washing thing, I did notice quite a few of the vendors looked like they hadn’t washed their hands in days. Or their hair. Certainly not their dungarees. Probably they don’t have running water at home. Or naturally occurring soap. Or a convenient mountain stream with suitable rocks against which to beat their wonderfully rustic work clothes. It must be some sort of minimalist philosophy because they all were flaunting rolls of cash more than sufficient to choke a Budweiser clydesdale.
    My s.o. insisted the special attraction of this market is its earthy quaint ambiance, well worth driving 45 minutes each way and paying double the price for knobby tomatoes, as I was rather tersely informed. I volunteered my opinion it was all rather overacted and shabby, at that. I may have mentioned the studied inefficiency of it all. I really stepped in it by dropping a remark about the absence of value, the dreaded term thrift escaped my lips. Admittedly I had earned the blistering scolding I got. Of course we had to buy some damned organic corn (as punishment, I concluded). It was crawling with corn borers. Not only would I not eat around the worm holes, I wouldn’t eat any of it so now I’m in the doghouse around here. Go figure. I may as well have gone out drinking and whoring with my buddies instead. Live and learn.

  • Inconvenience drives poor hand hygiene at outdoor events. Workers would wash more often if it were convenient and didn’t require leaving their post.
    I am hopeful that the FDA will eventually fully support a waterless handwashing protocol originally developed for the military, called SaniTwice. http://www.handwashingforlife.com/handsonsystem/sanitwice
    This is a documented solution for Farmers Markets, Petting Zoos, Schools during Water Outages…

  • jem

    Ah the Trolls are out — or maybe just one under numerous aliases. Farmers markets are a tremendous success because they deliver the Real Thing. If you don’t like fresh food you can always go to the supermarket where the peticide-laden produce has a couple of thousand miles on it already and the spinach is stamped with a 17 day shelf life…

  • Michael Bulger

    The perpetual troll (does everyone remember when it used just one screen name?) presents a few points here:
    1. Farmers’ market food vendors are exempt from FSMA.
    Response: Restaurants are also exempt. FSMA covers food facilities that process foods. Not retail venues such as restaurants and retail outlets (farmers’ markets, stores, supermarkets, etc.).
    2. Farmers’ markets are overpriced.
    Response: This is not supported by research. In fact, researchers from Iowa State Univ. found that shopping at the farmers’ market meant paying less than or equal to what one would pay at the local shopping market. Other research supports the contention that local food is at the very least competitively priced, if not less than other retail options.
    If one looks past the troll, there is a serious underlying issue here. Farmers’ market food service workers seem to be much like the many food service workers that I have worked alongside in restaurants: inadequately trained in food safety.
    More outreach needs to be done for food service workers both within and outside of the public’s view.

  • Emily

    I would gladly pay extra for a “17 day shelf life” when the organic crap being sold at farmers markets is rotting even before you can get it home. It doesn’t have even a 17 minute shelf life. Crawling with bugs and grubs. Just disgusting.
    For the ivory tower genius whose “research” shows farmers market food is affordable, I can only recommend he get out of his sheltering cocoon and visit a few markets. He’d better bring a freaking wheelbarrow load of cash if he thinks he might want to buy anything. The perfesser will quickly get an education and a much needed kick in the pants out here in the real world. Man, this stuff is e-x-p-e-n-s-i-v-e!