Keeping animal event goers safe takes vigilance

Two weeks ago 20-month old Colton James-Brian Guay tragically died from an E. coli O111 illness he picked up from a Maine fair petting zoo. Another child who visited the same event, Myles Herschaft, is still recovering from HUS.

Reading about these illnesses and thinking about my kids creates a pit in my stomach. The seriousness of the tragedy and how something like this might happen shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who works with food – farmers, processors, food handlers (commercial or domestic) – or the folks who run petting zoos and animal events.ekka_petting_zoo(3)

These tragedies happen often, but it’s not enough to just understand why; the science of pathogen transfer in animal contact events is out there. We’ve published on behaviors and best practices. Petting zoo operators should be watching this case closely and evaluating whether their current strategies would have avoided the outbreak. Changes might mean adjusting a process, increased training, testing and better communication of risks to patrons.

According to Time Warner Cable News, the NC State Fair organizers are focused on controlling zoonotic diseases at animal events.

“For many people, the fair is the only opportunity they may have to come see a cow or a pig or a mule, and so we want to make sure they get that experience. But we want everybody to understand that things like washing your hands and keeping your distance are great little steps that you can take and keep everybody healthy,” said N.C. State Fair spokesman Brian Long.

An E. coli outbreak at the 2011 State Fair caused 25 people to get sick and a year later, officials added barriers between livestock and fairgoers.

“Just to create more separation between humans and animals, you know animals are capable of transmitting bacteria to humans, and vice-versa. We want to keep the animals healthy. We want to keep the people healthy,” said Long.

Keeping folks and food separate from animals is a good strategy. Handwashing matters, but so does cleaning/sanitation of rails, floors and hand-contact surfaces.

At the root of a good food safety culture is recognition by everyone that it’s really important that things go right all the time. The stakes are too high if they don’t: kids end up in hospital or worse.
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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.