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.