The recent E. coli outbreaks in Florida set off alarms among county fair organizers, zoo operators and extension service agents nationwide.
The Salt Lake Tribune reports that in Utah, children are most likely to come in contact with barnyard animals at working farms such as Thanksgiving Point’s Farm Country, Salt Lake County’s Wheeler Farm and the American West Heritage Center in Cache County. Petting yards are also often offered at county fairs, as well as the Utah State Fair, and some 4-H clubs bring animals on visits to elementary schools.
Utah does not license or regulate petting zoos or animal exhibits, but “we do encourage them to make sure their animals are healthy,” said Larry Lewis, public information officer for the Utah Department of Agriculture. “Petting zoos are a recognized risk factor for this type of E. coli, so it is something we are always vigilant for,” said Marilee Poulson, a state food-borne disease epidemiologist.
“Many kids just see [barnyard animals] in books or goofy comic strips, so they do want to touch them,” said Debra Stielmaker, director of the Agriculture in the Classroom foundation for Utah State University Extension Services. According to the CDC, 73,000 Americans develop E. coli infections each year.
USU’s Extension Service and the Health Department all promote the single best method of avoiding an infection – hand washing. Soap and water are the gold standard for protection, but hand sanitizers are a great substitute.
“We stress the point that when you work with animals, touch animals, you should always wash your hands. Milk a cow, wash your hands. Pat a goat, wash your hands,” says Mack Dalley, Farm Country director. They offer soap and sanitizers – as well as a fluorescent lotion that illuminates any bacteria that still remains. They also do not allow guests to eat food while inside the farm, and work closely with USU Extension Services to make sure it is providing as safe and educational an experience as possible.