110616_petting_farm.jpgKOMO TV reports that four people have contracted E. coli (presumably E. coli O157:H7) after visiting an animal petting farm in Snohomish County, officials say. Two children and two adults have been infected, say officials with the city of Everett and the Snohomish County Health District. The petting farm was identified as the city of Everett’s Animal Farm at Forest Park.

Petting farms and County Fair animal exhibits have been implicated before in E. coli outbreaks Animals, even cute ones can carry bacteria. In 2003 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.

Since 1995, at least seventeen outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 have been reported at fairs and petting zoos. Dozens of children have suffered acute kidney failure, and some will require kidney transplants later in life. 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. We need laws, applicable to all, that focus on prevention. Those laws should implement the following:

• Use printed materials — signs, hand-outs, and flyers — to educate petting zoo visitors about the risks of zoonotic diseases.

• Petting zoo facility design should minimize exposure risks.

• Accepted sanitation protocols to prevent environmental exposures should be used.

• All animals should be tested for pathogenic bacteria before they arrive at the petting zoo.

• Hand washing stations should be accessible to all visitors.

• All visitors should be provided with appropriate protective devices, such as shoe scrubs and gloves.

• Prohibit food, drink, and hand-held items in petting zoo areas.

Perhaps putting these recommendations into law won’t eliminate the risk to public health. But for a minimal investment, petting zoo organizers can reduce the risk of sending kids to the hospital – or worse.