In late October 2004, the North Carolina Division of Public Health (NCDPH) received several reports of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) among North Carolina residents who had attended the State Fair in October of that year. NCDPH recognized the potential for a large outbreak and immediately alerted local health departments, asking them to increase surveillance for diarrheal illnesses and requested epidemiologic support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The subsequent investigation traced the majority of the illnesses back to E. coli O157:H7 bacteria originating at the Crossroads Farm Petting Zoo. At the Crossroads pen, visitors were allowed to walk among and have extensive direct contact with sheep and goats. They were also allowed to feed animals. Hand sanitizer was available, although handwashing facilities were not set up at the petting zoo. However, these facilities existed elsewhere on the fairgrounds.
In total, 108 cases of diarrheal illness were attributed to the outbreak. Of these, forty-one were laboratory confirmed with E. coli O157:H7, six were classified as probable cases, and 59 were classified as suspect cases. There were eighteen secondary cases in people who did not attend the petting zoo but contracted E. coli infections from those who had.
The state fair outbreak prompted a study at Duke University on whether or not North Carolina should regulate petting zoos to prevent the spread of diseases, and if so, what these regulations should entail.
In 2005, North Carolina adopted new legislation on petting zoo sanitation. The bill, called “Aieden’s Law,” was named after a boy who suffered a severe, life-threatening case of HUS. It stipulated that petting zoos must obtain a permit following a physical inspection in order to operate in the state.
Marler Clark represented four individuals who became ill with E. coli infections, some with hemolytic uremic syndrome, in claims against Crossroads Farm and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The litigation against Crossroads Farm has been resolved. Litigation against the State of North Carolina is still pending. The firm awaits the ruling from an August 2011 trial regarding liability of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.