E. coli study shows dangers at fairs


To prevent outbreaks, visitors will need to observe precautions, such as hand-washing.

Washington, D.C. - State and county fairs may offer visitors more than corn dogs and rides. Many of the cattle, sheep and pigs are carrying dangerous E. coli bacteria, scientists say.

A survey led by U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers of 32 state and county fairs last year found a deadly type of E. coli bacteria in nearly 14 percent of the beef cattle and 6 percent of the dairy cattle at the fairs. More than 5 percent of the sheep and 3.6 percent of the pigs also tested positive.

The researchers, who presented the data at an international conference in Scotland this week, said the study suggests E. coli is common among livestock at both large and small fairs.

"For beef cattle, this is just about spot-on with what you would expect in any other setting - actually, surprisingly so," given that cattle being shown at fairs are kept cleaner than they are on farms or feed lots, said William Laegreid, an E. coli specialist at USDA"s Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb.

Laegreid would not identify the three states where the survey was conducted, but said the results likely would be similar in Iowa and elsewhere.

Fair officials in Iowa say they have taken some steps to prevent E. coli outbreaks, such as adding hand-washing facilities near livestock barns.

E. coli infections kill an estimated 60 people a year and cause 73,500 illnesses and 2,000 hospitalizations.

The bacteria are especially dangerous to children and most commonly associated with eating undercooked ground beef. However, there have been several outbreaks in recent years associated with fairs and petting farms where people picked up the bacteria from contact with infected livestock.

An outbreak linked to a fair in Eugene, Ore., last year sickened 82 people, mostly young children, 22 of whom were hospitalized. The outbreak was eventually traced to the exhibition hall where goats and sheep were kept.

The children became violently ill with abdominal cramps and diarrhea within days of visiting the Oregon fair, according to a lawsuit filed earlier this month.

"The risks that these fairs have are just enormous," said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who is representing 29 of the victims.

The lawsuit listed eight other E. coli outbreaks in the United States and Canada that have been traced to fairs since 1998, three in Wisconsin and Ohio in 2001. Other outbreaks have been linked to petting farms.

Animals carry the bacteria in their gut. People pick up E. coli by eating contaminated meat or through contact with manure, animals or contaminated surfaces. It can take fewer than 10 E. coli organisms to make someone sick, compared to hundreds of organisms for other bacteria, such as salmonella.

The illness is often milder in people who live around livestock because they have developed some immunity, said Jay Varma, an E. coli specialist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Varma briefed fair managers on the E. coli problem at a meeting last month of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions.

"The real challenge we have is these are large events, there are a large number of persons coming into contact with animals, and a lot of these people coming into contact with animals may not do so in their everyday lives."

He said there is "one very good method of reducing your risk: Careful, diligent hand-washing."

The Iowa State Fair has started posting signs in livestock barns, warning patrons to wash their hands and also puts a portable wash stand near the petting zoo.

"The risk is extremely small, but it's not zero," said Nolan Hartwig, an Iowa State University veterinarian who has represented the school on the State Fair Board.

It is not practical to require screening of livestock for the bacteria, he said. The university has hand-washing stations at its cattle farms when school children go for visits.

County fairs in Iowa - there are 106 of them - have been adding wash stations and improving sanitation in food areas. Still, many people are unlikely to wash their hands after being around livestock, said Tom Barnes, executive vice president of the Association of Iowa Fairs.

"You take things in rural America not as seriously. People have worked around animals as part of their livelihood, and they take a lot of things for granted. Usually it"s fine," he said.

The USDA study consisted of testing 2,919 animals at 29 county fairs and three state fairs in two Midwestern states and one in the South. E. coli bacteria were found at every fair. Researchers at Ohio State University and Louisiana State University assisted in the research.

How to be safe

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have guidelines for preventing E. coli illnesses at fairs, petting zoos and farms:

WARNINGS: Visitors should be warned of the risk of getting harmful bacteria from animals.

FOOD: Food and beverages should not be served or consumed near animals. Children shouldn't carry toys and pacifiers around animals.

HAND-WASHING: Hand-washing stations with running water, soap and disposable towels should be installed. Communal wash basins are inadequate.