There’s nothing more American than a State or County Fair. From Washington and North Carolina to New York and Florida, countless numbers of children visit their local Fairs to ride the rides, feast on cotton candy and hot dogs, and visit those cute farm animals at the petting zoos. Unfortunately, some of the children will get very sick from doing a very simple act – petting those animals. And the sickest ones, most of them very small children, may be close to death before their doctors identify the cause – a relatively new strain of deadly bacteria known as E. coli O157:H7.
So what do we do? Banish the county fair? Close down petting zoos? Fair organizers and petting zoo owners need to take some rather simple and inexpensive precautions. North Carolina Department of Agriculture has just taken a bold, yet small, step to try a prevent a repeat of last years nearly 100 people, again mostly children, who were stricken with E. coli O157:H7 after visiting a petting zoo at the North Carolina State Fair. Separation of possibly infected animals and children is a positive step. Adding multiple hand washing stations and warning the public of the risk of disease spread by animals all makes sense, but they are only guidelines.

However, Pennsylvania is still the lone state that has put into law measures to protect visitors at fairs and petting zoos from E. coli O157:H7 and other zoonotic diseases. The law passed by Pennsylvania legislators stipulates that animal exhibitions provide hand washing facilities, and post notices on the need for hand washing as well as warning about the dangers of more than 75 zoonotic diseases. It is the law and applicable to all. But, do North Carolina’s guidelines and Pennsylvania law go far enough?
Since 1995, at least fifteen outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 have been reported at fairs and petting zoos. Dozens have suffered acute kidney failure and some of the children will require kidney transplants. Right now kids are still hospitalized with Kidney failure in Florida months after visiting a petting zoo. Three years ago, at 82 people became sick after attending the Lane County Fair in Eugene, Oregon. Most were young children, and 22 of them were hospitalized – twelve with kidney failure. In 2000, dozens of children were sickened after visiting petting zoos in Washington and Pennsylvania. The list goes on — California, Wisconsin, Ohio, each sickening children with a bacterium carried by livestock. In 2001 and in 2005 the CDC warned operators of petting zoos and county fairs to clean up.
Nonetheless, lessons from previous outbreaks are not being learned. Those farm animals may be cute, but they also can carry a deadly pathogen. A recent United States Department of Agriculture study of over 20 County Fairs found E. coli O157:H7 in 13.8 percent of beef cattle, 5.9 percent of dairy cattle, and slightly smaller percentages of sheep, pigs and goats – nearly the same percentages found in animals in feed lots. So, what do we do to protect the kids? We need laws, applicable to all, that focus on prevention. What should those laws look like:
First, we need to clean up our act. Sanitize walkways and railings, and provide ample hand-washing areas for both employees and visitors.
Second, stop selling or allowing food in close proximity to areas where animals are on display.
Third, increase ventilation of buildings to reduce the risk of airborne contamination. Keep livestock areas damp with an approved disinfectant.
Fourth, we should screen all display animals for E. coli O157:H7 – or require that exhibitors show proof their animals are pathogen free.
Finally, educate visitors. Post signs that explain to parents the importance of hand-washing before and after visiting the animals. Post tough warnings at the entrances, emphasizing the risks to small children.
Perhaps these 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.
For a complete history of county fair and petting zoo related outbreaks, see