Safety guidelines used in the United States might have prevented the E. coli O1157:H7 petting zoo outbreaks now underway in England and Canada, says an expert on the disease.

Across Southeast England, 40 children became ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections after coming into contact with it at the Godstone Farm in Surry.   As of Tuesday, 13 were being treated in area hospitals.

Four were in serious condition; seven in stable condition and three were improving.

Controversy has erupted in the United Kingdom over how long it took the Health Protection Agency to close down Godstone Farm, a popular petting zoo with as many as 2,000 visitors a day.

Godstone Farm was kept open for three week after the first case was reported.  Parents of children who got infected later in the outbreak say they never would have gone to the petting zoo had they known about the illnesses.

“The fact remains that the farm should not have been open when my guys went there,” Tracy Mock, the mother of two-year old twins now in the hospital, told Sky News.

HPA Chief Executive Justin McCracken is apologizing to parents and promising an independent investigation.  “The position they (the parents) find themselves in is unbearable and it is of course worse that what happened might have been avoidable.”

In Canada, 13 visitors to the petting zoo at the Pacific National Exhibition came away with E. coli O157:H7 infections.  B.C.’s Children’s Hospital said three of the 13 cases required hospital care.  One child remains hospitalized in fair condition.

Food safety attorney William Marler says animal exhibitors could avoid making children sick if they would just follow the safety guidelines the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) developed years ago.

“Unfortunately, we keep seeing outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 at petting zoos and animal exhibits,” Marler said.  “In the U.S there have more than two dozen outbreaks of E. coli traced to such events in the last 20 years.  As with most E. coli outbreaks, the victims are primarily children.”

The ongoing problem led the CDC to publish recommendations for reducing the risk of transmitting E. coli and other human pathogens at animal exhibits.  In the wake of devastating E. coli outbreaks, several states including Pennsylvania and North Carolina have enacted laws requiring similar precautions.

Yet in representing dozens of children sickened in these outbreaks over the years, Marler says he has learned from experience that outbreaks occur when animal exhibitors disregard these basic recommendations:

  1. Source control: Animals need to be screened for pathogens, and removed if ‘shedding’ those pathogens.
  2. Effective manure management: Sanitary removal of animal manure followed by sanitation of bins and traffic areas. 
  3. Dust control: Fecal matter in dust can spread infectious agents onto surfaces, which results in human illness through hand to mouth transfer of pathogens, maybe even inhalation. 
  4. Clean up and sanitation: Sanitize all contact surfaces. 
  5. Environmental sanitation: Prevent cross-contamination of areas adjacent to animal holding areas, particularly food courts and drinking fountains. 
  6. Hand washing and sanitation facilities:  Require visitors to wash and sanitize upon entry and exit to animal holding areas and petting zoos. 
  7. Clear protocol for petting zoo and animal contact areas: Hand-to-mouth activities such as eating, drinking, smoking, carrying toys and pacifiers should be strictly prohibited in the interaction area.  Gloves should be available for additional protection. 
  8. Information should be provided: Wherever there is public access to farm animals, information about the risk associated with the transmission of pathogens should be provided to visitors. 
  9. Heightened precautions should be applied to high-risk groups: Children under age five, people with weakened immune systems, and pregnant women fall in the category of high-risk for serious infection, and hence should strictly follow all the precautions enforced in the animal contact area.