I can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth over such an un-American suggestion.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports the creation of yet another multiagency task force in North Carolina “to evaluate the preventive measures that were in place during the 2011 state fair and to identify additional interventions that could be applied to prevent disease transmission in livestock exhibitions where physical contact with the public might occur.” Hmm, didn’t that happen after the 2004 North Carolina State Fair E. coli outbreak, which resulted in 187 illnesses, including 15 complicated by hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS)?


This latest task force is looking into what happened at the 2011 North Carolina State Fair, held October 13-23 in Raleigh. According to the CDC, 25 cases of E. coli O157:H7 infection were identified with case-patients’ illness onsets during October 16-25; median age was 26 years (range: 1-77 years). Eight case-patients (32 percent) were hospitalized; four (16 percent) experienced HUS. Once again, the only exposure associated with illness was having visited one of the permanent structures in which sheep, goats, and pigs were housed for livestock competitions.


After decades of outbreaks, the CDC and a collection of state veterinarians have issued these stern warnings and suggestions about animal exhibits and petting zoos:

– Wash hands after contact with animals to reduce the risk of zoonotic disease transmission.

– Do not allow food, drink, or pacifiers in animal areas.

– Include transition areas between animal areas and non-animal areas.

– Educate visitors about disease risk and prevention procedures.

– Properly care for and manage animals.

But, if history is any guide, guidelines are not working very well.  Here is a sample of zoonotic outbreaks over the last decade:

2011 English Animal Farm Outbreak – Cruckley Animal Farm in Foston-on-the-Wolds, England is closing its gates permanently following an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7.  The family-run farm was linked to at least six cases of the life-threatening infection as of August 2011.  The owners, John and Sue Johnston, expressed sorrow at the illness and stated that “the health and safety of our visitors has always been our top priority,” thus with the news the farm was the likely source of illnesses, they decided to close.


2011 Snohomish County Petting Zoo – At least 6 people who visited the Forest Park Petting Zoo in Everett, Washington, in June 2011 became ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections. The Snohomish County Health Department investigated the E. coli outbreak and determined that there was a “clear association between disease and being in the open animal interaction area of the forest Park Animal Farm.”

2009 Utah Rodeos Outbreak – Utah state and local health officials and the CDC noted a cluster of E. coli O157:H7 cases in the summer of 2009.  The illnesses were associated with attendance to rodeos, but not all the same one.  The vast majority of the 14 cases (93 percent) had food histories containing ground beef, unsurprising for rodeo visitors. 
However, a traceback on the meat products provided at the rodeos found no contamination.

2009 Godstone Park Farm and Plan Barn E. coli Outbreak in Surrey, England – A final report of the Outbreak Control Committee of the Surrey and Sussex Health Protection Unit describes an outbreak of E. coli O157 (VTEC O157 PT21/28) occurring in August and September 2009. This was the largest documented outbreak of VTEC O157 associated with farms in the UK. Individuals became infected either through direct or indirect contact with farm livestock.

2009 “Feed the Animals” Exhibit E. coli Outbreak at the Western Stock Show – In January 2009, the Communicable Disease and Consumer Protection Divisions of the Colorado Department of Public Health noticed an increase is in the number of laboratory confirmed cases of E. coli O157.  Thirty cases were identified–including nine hospitalizations and 2 cases of HUS.  All the children had visited the National Western Stock Show in Denver, Colorado.

2007 Petting Zoo E. coli O157:H7 Outbreak in Pinellas County, FL – In May and June 2007, seven Florida children were infected with E. coli O157:H7. Six of the children had visited a Day Camp petting zoo, and the seventh was a sibling. Two of the children were hospitalized, all seven recovered.  The petting zoo was closed on the recommendation of the health department.

2005 Big Fresno Fair Petting Zoo E. coli Outbreak – At least six children were infected with E. coli O157:H7 – one gravely – visiting the petting zoo at the 2005 Big Fresno Fair. One child was 2 years old at the time of her visit to the petting zoo. She developed HUS and was hospitalized for months. Her kidneys were severely damaged and a series of strokes left her with impaired movement and vision.


2005 Campylobacteriosis Outbreak Associated with a Camping Trip to a Farm – In June 2005, King County Public Health was notified that a several children on a school trip had been ill with diarrhea, abdominal pain and fever following the trip. Campylobacter was isolated from the stool of one ill individual, and later in the week, two more cases of campylobacteriosis were reported in persons who had been on the same camping trip, held at a private farm.

2005 Florida State Fair, Central Florida Fair, and Florida Strawberry Festival E. coli Outbreak – The AgVenture Farms E. coli O157:H7 outbreak was first recognized after two separate HUS case reports were reported to the Florida Department of Health in mid-March.  The two cases (a 5-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy) both reported hav
ing visited a fair with a petting zoo (AgVenture) a few days prior to becoming ill. The two children did not have any other common risk factors. A total of 22 confirmed, 45 suspect and 6 secondary cases were reported.

2003 Fort Bend County Fair E. coli Outbreak – Rosenberg, TX – In 2003, 25 people (fair visitors and animal exhibitors) became ill with HUS and one case of a related disease, thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura. All seven laboratory-confirmed cases had an indistinguishable PFGE pattern, which matched 10 isolates obtained from environmental samples taken from animal housing areas.

2002 E. coli Outbreak at a Petting Zoo in Zutphen, The Netherlands  – A young child developed a Shiga toxin 2 producing strain of Escherichia coli (STEC) O157 infection after visiting a petting zoo in Zutphen, The Netherlands. The STEC strains were isolated from the fecal samples from goats and sheep on the farm and were indistinguishable from the human patient isolate.

2002 Lane County, Oregon, Fair E. coli Outbreak – The Oregon Department of Human Services (Oregon, 2002) initially documented a patient with bloody diarrhea, who attended the Lane County Fair held during August 2002. Epidemiologists identified 82 ill persons, 22 who were hospitalized, and 12 with HUS. This is the largest E. coli O157:H7 outbreak recorded in Oregon.


2002 Wyandot County, OH, Fair E. coli Outbreak – The Ohio Wyandot County Health Department received a report of an E. coli O157 outbreak in September 2001 (CDC memorandum, February, 2002). A total of 92 cases were identified, including 27 laboratory-confirmed E. coli O157 infections. Two cases were diagnosed with hemolytic uremic syndrome. Eighty-eight cases reported attending Wyandot County Fair before becoming ill.

2001 Lorain County, OH, Fair E. coli Outbreak – The Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Services (CDC memorandum, February, 2002) reported that 23 cases of E. coli O157:H7 infection were associated with the attendance at the Lorain County Fairgrounds in September 2001. Additional cases were identified as likely due to secondary transmission from attendees at the fairgrounds. An investigation associated illness with environmental contamination at the Cow Palace.

2001 Ozaukee County, WI, Fair E. coli Outbreak – The Ozaukee County Public Health Department and Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services (2001) investigated an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 associated with animals at the Ozaukee County Fair in August 2001. A total of 59 E. coli O157:H7 cases were identified in this outbreak, with 25 laboratory confirmed cases (25 “primary cases” and 34 probable cases).

2001 E. coli Outbreak at a Petting Zoo in Worcester, PA – An article published by WebMD Medical News on April 23, 2001 (Bloomquist, 2001), reported an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 among visitors to the Merrymead Farm petting zoo in Worcester, Pennsylvania. In all, 16 children who had visited the zoo contracted E. coli, and it was suspected that another 45 people became ill from the bacteria. The report indicated that one week after visiting the zoo, one of the children came down with violent stomach cramps and was hospitalized.

2000 Cryptosporidiosis Outbreak at a Farm in Wellington, New Zealand – An outbreak of Cryptosporidiosis was linked to a two-day farm educational event in the Wellington region of New Zealand. Twenty-three cases were laboratory-confirmed. The route of infection was most likely from an infected animal.


2000 E. coli Outbreak at a Dairy Farm – Crump et al (2002) discussed an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 among visitors to a dairy farm in Pennsylvania in September 2000. A case control study among the visitors was conducted to identify the risk factors of infection, along with a household survey to determine the rates of diarrheal illness. The total number of confirmed or suspected E. coli O157:H7 cases was 51. The median age among the patients was four. Eight of the cases developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).

2000 Snohomish County, WA, Petting Zoo E. coli Outbreak – The Snohomish Health District, Communicable Disease Department (June, 2000) reported five cases of bacterial diarrhea caused by E. coli O157:H7 in children in Snohomish County in May 2000. Three of the children visited a petting zoo several days before they became sick. The fourth child did not visit the petting zoo, but lived on another farm where cattle were raised.

2000 Medina County, OH, Fair E. coli Outbreak – A cluster of E. coli O157:H7 isolates was observed in Medina County, Ohio, in August of 2000. In the case-control investigation, 43 culture confirmed E. coli O157:H7 cases were identified. The environmental investigation suggested that contamination of a section of the water distribution system supplying various vendors was the likely exposure.

So, what do you think should be done?

For more information on outbreaks and prevention measures, visit Fair-Safety.Com

  • Dan

    How is it that the farmers, farm families, and farm workers that care for, feed, and handle the farm animals surviving since they are constantly being exposed to the same pathogens that may be causing illness with the general public? Is it at all possible that their immune systems are more advanced by constant exposure than the general public?

  • There is a simple and very portable solution described here:http://www.handwashingforlife.com/handsonsystem/sanitwice
    Please help get this product-independent solution approved at the upcoming Conference for Food Protection.

  • (Jim, most of these venues have hand sanitizing stations. It is the poor hygiene habits and resistant strains that cause outbreaks in these situations)
    The situation is unfortunately caused by individuals with poor hygiene habits. Each time I visit a zoo, a farm event or venue with petting zoos, I notice several adults, including parents, who do not wash their hands or assist their children after leaving existing a petting exhibit.
    Some of these individuals immediately eat something they are carrying or walk directly to a food vendor and consume food, again, without washing their hands. These are generally the same individuals that do not wash their produce or rinse pre-packed salad mixes.
    Another factor is the reluctance of the FDA to control the use of antibiotics used to speed growth and/or control disease (disease sparked by overcrowding animals on factory farms). Highly resistance strains are created in factory farms and often spread by migrating birds and the food products entering the stream of commerce.
    As a future farmer, urban farm advocate, a food safety educator, it is extremely frustrating that a few individuals with poor hygiene and the governments reluctance to regulate antibiotic use and overcrowding of animals in factory farms may cause extreme measures to be taken that will limit the interaction between man and nature.
    Such outbreaks also prompt the government to respond with unnecessary restrictions of keeping a small number of animals and crops within the same space. Animal related outbreaks on farms are generally due to factory farm effluent running onto a neighboring farm’s crops, not on small, sustainable farms with biodiversity.
    I hope the FDA and USDA will not propose more “knee-jerk” laws and overly extreme measures that will negatively affect everyone.
    Such measures generally perpetuate the current factory farm and industrial farm situation and hinder the expansion of sustainable, biodiverse operations.

  • There is a simple and very portable solution described here:http://www.handwashingforlife.com/handsonsystem/sanitwice
    Please help get this product-independent solution approved at the upcoming Conference for Food Protection.

  • Lynn ZB

    Hand sanitizers won’t do the trick when hands are visually dirty. I imagine the same is true if you’ve got a lot of animal saliva on your hands (e.g., from feeding). Real handwashing (with soap and water) is what is needed, as much of hand hygine is a physical removal process. Of course, we need to make sure people use these handwashing stations!
    The tendency to separate human from animals is concerning in a world where we are increasingly separated from where our food comes from and our natural world. There are great benefits from human-animal interactions, 4-H being a prime example. In a world full of electronics and screen time, kids need more of this type of interaction, not less.
    I also wonder what is going on from an immunologic standpoint. Farm families and animal handlers are not typically part of the outbreaks.

  • Danae in MD

    Educating the public and the employees concerning the risk of Petting Farms as well as USDA certification that the animals are healthy and housed under sanitary conditions would be a good first step. The Petting Farm should be responsible for educating the customers, as many children and adults are unfamiliar with livestock animals. The Petting Farm should also be responsible to provide an environment as safe as possible with handwashing stations, separate eating areas, and advice on how to stay safe.
    Certain types of animals such as young poultry and calves should not be made available for handling due to the risks. Having grown up around livestock on our family ranches, I can say that farmers & ranchers do not usually pet and hand feed their animals like at a Petting Farm. When farmers do handle their animals, it is because they are performing medical procedures such as vaccinating or assisting in births. They always wash their hands very thoroughly before having a sandwich as they are aware of the germs that could be present. In addition, the animals on most family farms & ranches are not under the stressful and sometimes confined conditions that can occur at Petting Farms, Livestock Shows & Fairs where the concentration of germs are much higher.

  • Steve

    Danae in MD — while I agree that the public needs to be educated — and most farmers don’t handle their livestock as pets — there is still a lot of time-honored farmer livestock handling traditions that goes on in 4H groups, preparing animals and poultry for Fairs, etc.
    The problem here, as Lynn ZB points out, is impacts on immune function from the lack of animal exposure and farmyard contact. So… why not standard school visits to approved farms (a Great experience for kids of all ages) as part of a Natural Immunization Policy — no shots involved!

  • susan Rudnicki

    Mr Marler—I read your profile and some of the pieces here. One thing that concerns me in the continuing drama of increasingly toxic food borne illnesses is the link to our industrialized food model. Some 70% of the antibiotics used in America are prophylactic treatment for CAFO animals and scientists are gravely concerned with the number of organisms exhibiting resistance to drugs we have always relied on for treating human illness. Your litigation focuses on only the outcome of this ecologically devastating model of food production and as far as I can see, none of your education fields include study of the Agricultural systems that introduce these CAFO models as the height of achievement for animal husbandry. Animals raised under these conditions spread the resistant organisms far and wide, so banning the petting zoo or the fair animals is not going to solve any major issue, in my opinion. I grew up in constant contact with horses, chickens, steers, cows, calves and pigs. None were raised with antibiotic protocols. I have been a vegetarian for 30 years as a result of my biology major in college and learning the things I outline above. My brother, interestingly, has also worked for the USDA in Washington, DC for the last 32 years, in the Foreign Ag. Service—–basically, a promotion service arm for the CAFO model to be urged on any other country not currently practicing this animal husbandry model. It is a egregious, irresponsible, and reckless self-serving promotion of a highly flawed practice, and I have many heated conversations with him over the poor service it is and will render to the countries signing on to it. So my purpose in writing this is to point out, your diatribe on the problems of petting zoos, ag. fairs, etc. is missing the bigger and much more dangerous root—our arrogant challenging of scientific and environmental fact that we will out-wit microscopic infective organisms going the path we are traveling in industrial/corporate food production models.

  • Richard Ross

    The past CEO/President of Gooch Feeds was Merv Eighmy. He took me on calls when an animal was sick because the rancher thought the feed caused the illness.
    Merv, and I watched him do this often, would take a piece of the animal’s feces and eat it to tell about the digestion practice of the animal and if the feed had been properly formulated.
    Mervyn lived into his nineties at his ranch in Nebraska.
    Feces happens,knee-jerk reactions by the FDA/USDA are not appropriate. We cannot regulate our way out of accidents and this circumstance is a normal risk in life.