When the Clay County Fair in Florida gets under way tomorrow for the first ten days of April, America’s love affair with fairs will be back in season.
What remains to be seen is whether the $2.2 million that one fair just agreed to pay a Fresno girl who contracted an E. coli strain from visiting the Big Fresno Fair’s petting zoo five year ago will mean safer fairs everywhere in 2010.
The Big Fresno Fair settled with attorneys representing Angela Malos, a 2-year-old in 2005 when the tot visited the petting zoo with her family, for $2.2 million, and further agreed to invest an additional $50,000 in hand-washing stations that will be located outside the petting zoo.
It is one of the largest settlements in the nation involving E coli exposure at a petting zoo.
With food like corndogs and funnel cakes at every turn and live animals up close, fairs are a lot like visiting one giant Petri dish. Rest rooms and hand-washing stations with soap and hot water are often as rare as a clean table.
And while a $2.2 million settlement with one injured fair visitor is likely to get attention from lawyers and risk managers who work for the shows, there is another word that is getting their attention: biosecurity.
A child getting bacterial diseases from touching animals at petting zoos is one thing, but the spike last summer and fall in H1N1 flu cases raised a larger concern for fair managers. Children with flu visiting fairs could put the pigs at risk.
North Carolina, for example, last year announced they’d begin asking visitors to wash their hands “to help protect pigs from a human-borne illness, specifically the novel H1N1 flu currently circulating in the human population.”
“The disease has been found in humans and can possibility spread to swine, which could threaten our state’s $1.9 billion pork industry,” said David Marshall, North Carolina’s state veterinarian.
North Carolina did say its campaign to protect pigs from people would be built on the hand-washing stations that have become “a fixture at county and state fairs across the state in the past decade to protect fairgoers from animal-borne diseases such a E. coli.”
The mixtures of animal contact and hand-held food mean fairs are pregnant with the possibility for the “fecal/oral” transmission of dangerous bacteria.
Last year in addition to the long season of county and state fairs, stock shows and so-called “open farms” were hotspots for E. coli infections in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
UK’s Health Protection Agency says the investigation into the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak last summer involving the Godstone animal-petting farm is not completed. Almost 100 people were sickened by E. coli from the UK petting farm.
Although the investigation led by Professor George Griffin has not yet issued a report, the HPA agreed to share important points emerging from its work as Easter weekend is the start of the main visiting season.
Ironically, as HPA released the findings, another scandal involving a petting zoo in the UK was underway. This one was subject of an undercover news investigation that discovered dead animals being left to rot and pig feces testing positive for E. coli.
Here are some of the Godstone conclusions:
‘Open farms’ (or ‘petting farms’) provide a valuable recreational and educational experience for many people. As with many activities in life, visits to open farms can never be considered free from all risk–such an environment is not attainable–and one of the risks which needs to be understood by farm operators and their staff, regulators, and the visiting public alike is that of infection caused by the bacterium, E. coli O157.
The assumption must be that all ruminant animals carry E. coli O157 and excrete it in their feces. E. coli O157 is a very infectious disease. Swallowing a small number of the bacteria can cause illness.
While relatively rare in relation to the millions of visits paid to open farms each year, there must be no complacency as E. coli O157 can cause very severe complications in all age groups but especially in children under 5. This advice is intended to help with sensibly managing the risk to visitors, especially children, while retaining the enjoyment.
‘Avoiding ill health at open farms–advice to farmers’.
This guidance, which has a supplement aimed at teachers who may take groups of children on organized outings to such farms, is used by inspectors to judge compliance with the relevant health and safety legislation.
The guidance describes how to minimize the risk to visitors from being contaminated and accidentally ingesting the bacteria. It covers aspects such as livestock management, the importance of farm layout, the need for cleanliness of contact areas, keeping eating and picnic facilities away from animal contact areas, good visitor information and signage, the need for visitor supervision, especially in contact areas, by trained staff and the importance of washing facilities–their location, attractiveness, capacity, cleanliness, maintenance, and use.
The need to strengthen the guidance in any areas will be reviewed in the light of Professor Griffin’s report when it is published. Meanwhile, the emerging findings from the investigation committee reinforce the importance of these precautions, and highlight the importance of three areas of risk management.
In particular, in the light of the Godstone outbreak:
• People should not have contact with animal feces–this is the committee’s strongest recommendation. There is a need to keep all areas accessible by the public clean and free of fecal material, including preventing fecal seepage and runoff from pens.
• The public should not have access to non-visitor areas, such as manure heaps. Other parts of the farm such as play areas, sandpits, and picnic areas should especially be kept clean and free from contamination.
• Visitors may have little appreciation of the hazard posed by E. coli O157 or on how to avoid infection. It is therefore important that everyone on starting a visit to an open farm, particularly those with children, is made aware that:
E. coli O157 should be assumed to be present in the feces of all ruminant animals and on the animals themselves and on many surfaces.
• A very small dose can cause infection.
• The serious nature of the illness E. coli can cause, especially in children under five.
• Hand-washing with soap and water is the most effective method of reducing risk of infection–gels and wipes should not be used as an alternative to hand-washing.
• Hand-washing should take place after any contact with animals and when moving from any animal areas to other areas including non-animal play areas and places where food is consumed such as picnic areas, cafes and similar.
• Any personal items of visitors which may have had contact with animals or have fallen on the floor and possibly contaminated should be cleaned thoroughly before being handled, particularly by children.
• Supervision of children’s hand washing is essential. Young children cannot be expected to understand and follow the guidance, so the responsibilities for adult supervision must be clear.
Public Health Messages
• You should assume that all cattle, sheep and goats are infected with E. coli O157 bacteria, even if the animals look clean and healthy.
• You can therefore pick up E. coli O157 by touching animals, fences and other surfaces and accidentally transfer the bacteria to your mouth.
• Children, especially those under 5, are particularly vulnerable to E. coli O157 infection and are more likely to suffer very serious illness as a result.
• Washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water will reduce the chance of infection. Remember to wash your hands after touching an animal, before eating or drinking, and after removing clothing and shoes worn on the farm.
• Children should be closely supervised to ensure that they wash their hands properly after contact with animals.
Food Safety News was provided with more precise details on those settlements and a comment from the Big Fresno Fair, specifically: The Big Fresno Fair’s insurance agency, California Fair Services Authority (CFSA), settled with attorneys representing Angela Malos for $2.15 million. United Site Services, the company that supplied the hand washing stations outside the petting zoo at the Fair in 2005, settled for $50,000.
“The health and safety of our patrons is a top priority of The Big Fresno Fair. We work year round with our key State, County, City and private partners to establish a comprehensive health and safety program to protect our Fairgoers and staff,” said John Alkire, CEO for The Big Fresno Fair. “We believe that it is important to educate the public on the importance of health and safety. In addition to on-grounds signage and announcements to educate the public, we encourage patron responsibility when it comes to their own health and safety.”