Without animal exhibits, county fairs would take a long and regrettable step toward becoming carnivals. But the fact that Oregon's largest outbreak of E. coli infections occurred at last month's Lane County Fair is clear proof that sanitation in livestock barns cries for much closer attention. Public safety, and the survival of county fairs as a link between urban America and its rural roots, demands it.
Epidemiologists aren't sure whether the E. coli bacterium is becoming more prevalent in livestock, or whether the rising number of infections is a product of better tracking. It's possible that both factors are at work. One productive line of inquiry might involve the practice of mixing antibiotics with livestock feed as a means of encouraging weight gain. This practice may be having the effect of increasing the hardiness of E. coli and other bacterial organisms.
The means of contamination, however, are well understood: The bacteria are found in livestock feces, and spread to humans through direct or indirect contact. Children are the most vulnerable to the worst medical consequences of infection, and they also happen to be most likely to put their hands in their mouths after touching an animal.
The local cases have been traced to the fair's goat and sheep barns. Such places are ideal incubators for large-scale outbreaks. Many animals from many farms and ranches are brought to a single place, where they are seen, admired and touched by thousands of people. Quite a few of those people are eating at the time, or eat soon after leaving the barns. Opportunities for oral-fecal contact are abundant; nationwide, at least six county fairs have reported E. coli outbreaks in the past four years.
Hand-washing is the simplest measure fairgoers can take to prevent contamination, and the Lane County Fair must make this the first line of defense. The number of hand-washing stations in the livestock barns must be increased, and warning signs should inform the public of the urgency of thorough hand-cleaning to prevent infection. Blacklight lamps that reveal the presence of bacteria on fairgoers' hands would also be useful - the devices, which have already been installed at the Oregon State Fair, show people that a quick rinse isn't enough.
The need for precautions doesn't end at the fair gates. Though food vendors have received a clean bill of health in the current outbreak, people who handle food are often a key link in the spread of bacterial infections. Even people cooking at home need to guard against contamination, particularly when handling raw meat or poultry. Infections can be prevented by frequent hand-washing and cleaning of surfaces exposed to potential sources of contamination.
Given the hardiness of the E. coli bacterium and the ease with which it can be transferred from floors to railings, from railings to hands, from hands to food and from food to mouth, the fact that 73,000 infections were reported in the United States last year is not surprising. That number can be sharply reduced without denying the public the opportunity to see prize-winning farm animals on display at county fairs. But fair officials must take the lead in educating the public and providing the means for taking the necessary and reasonable precautions.