New rules designed to prevent E. coli cases


Fairgrounds officials take steps in response to last year's outbreak

People attending future animal exhibits at the Lane County Fairgrounds should have no trouble spotting warnings designed to prevent an outbreak of E. coli illness.

Such an outbreak associated with last August's county fair sickened nearly 80 people and sent 22 children to the hospital.

From now on, at least two dozen hand-washing stations will be set up around the animal barns and food vending areas, and large sandwich boards and wall signs will remind people not to take food or beverages into the barns and to wash thoroughly after leaving the animal exhibits.

Caretakers of young children will receive extra reminders not to let the little ones put their unwashed hands or other objects into their mouths or to munch on anything that has been dropped on floors.

Fair officials met Tuesday night with upwards of 100 animal exhibitors to talk about new practices that will go into effect in June when the Black Sheep Gathering next comes to town, followed in July by the 4-H/FFA youth fair and the Lane County Fair in August.

Andrew Clark, state veterinarian with the Department of Agriculture, told the group that preventing the virulent strain of E. coli - O157:H7 - which cropped up at last year's fair, can't be guaranteed, but it can be diminished.

"There's no screening test for carriers of this illness, there's no blood test, and it's transient," meaning that an animal may test positive for the bacteria one week and not a few days later, Clark said. "But we're not talking about sterilization, we're talking about sanitation. In any situation like this, it's not perfect, and the purpose of (these measures) is to prevent exposure and mitigate the possibility of an outbreak from happening."

Adequate ventilation of barns, frequent sanitation of walkways and railings with disinfectants, restricting food and beverages to designated areas and frequent hand washing should minimize the chances of another tragic episode of E. coli contamination, Clark said.

Even so, exhibitors took issue with some of the proposed procedures as unnecessary or even counterproductive.

A handout presented by fairgrounds staff member Jean Duncan called for animal owners to remove soiled stall bedding before the opening of animal exhibits each day, replacing it with fresh bedding.

Leslie Hildreth, a spokeswoman for the Black Sheep Gathering, said such a requirement would do the opposite of what the fair hopes to accomplish.

Completely emptying animal pens daily would be more likely to spread animal waste in public areas where it could cause more problems than the traditional method of "top dressing," in which a thick layer of fresh straw covers the used bedding, Hildreth said.

Clark and Don Hansen, a veterinarian with the Oregon State University Extension Service, supported the animal owners' point of view.

"Top dressing, if done correctly, has been used successfully for generations to keep barns clean," Hansen said. However, different animals require different levels of attention, and the standards at the Lane County Fairgrounds should be set accordingly, he said. In any case, walkways and railings should be cleaned and sanitized frequently to minimize the spread of pathogens.

The exact origin of last year's E. coli outbreak has not been determined.