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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

State Fair organizers take steps to prevent E. coli outbreaks

Chick Jacobs of The Fayetteville Observer has written an excellent article addressing the E. coli outbreak at North Carolina State Fair’s petting zoo last fall and how this year’s fair will hopefully bring fewer kids to the hospital.
From the article:

The placement was too striking to ignore.
Twenty yards, give or take a turkey leg, away from the North Carolina State Fair’s petting zoo, a concession booth was doing land-office business selling candied apples, cotton candy and other finger-lickin’ products.
Right next door, another booth offered blinking pacifiers.
Fortunately, wedged between the animals and the eats stood a monolithic, none-too-subtle reminder of the illness outbreak that struck more than 100 children at last year’s fair. To get to the goodies, youngsters had to gallop past a stand of portable wash stands, each slathered with a blizzard of reminders to wash hands thoroughly.

Welcome to the carefree kids’ world of the North Carolina State Fair. A place where animals and children are separated by a carnival-colored, but very official, fence and an invisible but equally imposing barrier of concern.
So cute. So cuddly. So deadly. After last fall’s E. coli outbreak at the fair, no one’s taking chances.
If you visit the fair this week, try to walk through the animal exhibits without being bombarded with reminders in both English and Spanish to wash your hands. Go ahead, I dare you.
“It seems everyone is appreciative of the increased emphasis on safety,” said Heather Overton of the N.C. State Fair office. “Naturally there are some disappointed with the penning and restricted access to animals. It’s not that free-for-all atmosphere of children and animals mingling like in the past.
“But we felt it was the best option. Visitors can still enjoy the petting zoo, and many have so far.”
While children may not understand why they can’t mingle as in years past, parents seem to appreciate the increased concern for safety.
“He still thinks it’s fun,” said Heather Pellicie, who brought her 4-year-old son, Conner, to the fair from Wilmington. “As long as he can touch the animals, he’s happy.”
And lest anyone who reads about the more restrictive rules fret too much, none of the children who attended the opening day of the State Fair seemed scarred by an emphasis on sanitation. They could still feed the animals, pet them, even playfully head-butt a large black goat that stood on his hind legs and bleated for attention.
They could look, could touch, just couldn’t get too chummy – which is a whole lot better than visitors to other fairs around the country fared this fall.
The two-headed beast of liability and lawsuits led the Texas State Fair to completely shelve the huge petting zoo at its 30-day fair. Earlier this year, a fair in Greensboro ended any interaction between children and animals, putting the creatures behind iron bars. Fairs in Florida and Washington also sent the animals packing.
It’s a long way from the original petting zoo in an upstate New York roadside attraction called Santa Land. For decades, all manner of animals wandered freely, delighting children of all ages.
Fifty-five years later, Santa Land still draws visitors, but the longtime petting zoo has shut down.
“It’s so sad, really,” said Amy Drummond, who took her 4-year-old daughter, Emma, to see the animals at the fair.
“I want to pet the horse,” Emma pouted. She had to settle for a gathering of goats, many as tall as she was.
“I mean, I certainly understand the need for safety for our children,” Drummond said. “But for years people could play with the animals. How did things get so bad so quickly?”
The answer, according to officials at the N.C. State Fair, is a virulent little germ called E. coli. It’s a bacterium found in most digestive systems – animals’ and people’s. But the O157:H7 variety produces a dangerous toxin that damages kidneys and wreaks havoc in humans. It often proves fatal to the young and elderly.
Over the past decade, E. coli H:157 was primarily thought of as a food poisoning agent, especially in meats and unwashed vegetables. Remember why you can’t order a fast-food hamburger medium-rare any more? That’s the stuff.
In the late ’90s, E. coli made it’s first documented appearance in a petting zoo. Since then, according to health officials, at least 15 U.S. state fairs and petting zoos have suffered outbreaks.
By 2001, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had issued warnings about the risk of E. coli at petting zoos.
A series of outbreaks in Florida last year that was topped by the 100-plus cases linked to the petting zoo at last year’s fair in Raleigh got the attention of officials, the public and lawmakers. North Carolina joined Pennsylvania and Oregon (which suffered a major E. coli petting-zoo outbreak at a county fair in 2002) as the first states to create guidelines for petting-zoo sanitation and safety.
At the North Carolina State Fair this fall, new hand-washing stations have been set up at the petting zoo near Gate 5 and around other animal exhibits. Fencing prevents children and animals from getting too close, and food, drinks, strollers and baby supplies are not allowed into the enclosed petting zoo.
North Carolina’s guidelines earned the praise of William Marler, an lawyer specializing in bacterial illness lawsuits.
In a statement on his Web site, www.ecoliblog.com, he said, “Perhaps the precautions won’t eliminate the risk to public health. But, for a minimal investment, organizers can reduce the risk of sending kids to the hospital – or worse.”
That “or worse” was on the mind of Hope Mills couple Wayne and Stephanie Leggett as their son, Hunter, played hookey from Rockfish Elementary School to pet a camel.
“They have them in Egypt,” the 6-year-old proudly informed other zoo visitors as his 4-year-old sister, Abby, stood spellbound staring up at the strange, drooling creature.
“It’s worrisome to hear about how children got sick,” Stephanie Leggett said. “And I guess it’s kind of sad that they can’t get as close as we did. We’d come every year, and the goats would hop up like they were hugging you. It’s a great memory that they won’t have.
“But if this keeps children healthy, then it’s OK.”