Fairgoers urged to remember hygiene

On The Farm

July 24, 2005|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

IT'S THE COUNTY fair season.

Nearly 30 state, county and community fairs are scheduled before the end of September, a great opportunity for city slickers to get a peek at life on the farm, and perhaps an insight into their own heritage.

It is also good time for the kids to see a sheep sheared, a cow milked, a chick hatched and - best of all - to hug or pet a cuddly baby calf or a newborn goat.

Enjoy the fairs as a good, wholesome, summer tradition, state officials are telling families. But the words of encouragement come with a warning: Be cautious, especially around the animals.

State officials don't want an outbreak of a potentially deadly strain of E. coli bacteria like the one that infected 26 people, most of them children, at fairs in Florida over the past winter.

The outbreak began with symptoms common to many childhood illnesses: diarrhea, cramps and upset stomach. But in short time some of the kids were showing up in hospitals across Florida with their kidneys failing and in urgent need of dialysis.

The illnesses eventually were traced to animals that were part of a petting zoo that was traveling from fair to fair.

"We don't want people scared away from fairs," said John R. Brooks, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture and a veterinarian. "Fairs and expositions are an important component of us connecting with the nonagricultural community. They are warm and fuzzy events enjoyed by the whole family.

"Go to the fair and enjoy it," Brooks said. "Interact with animals, but use good hygiene practices, common-sense things like washing your hands after petting the animals."

E. coli outbreaks in Florida and a few others states prompted Maryland to take preventive action.

This month, about 70 fair managers from across the state attended a two-day workshop on preventing food- and animal-borne illness. They were the first in the nation to get the training from Technical Solutions International Inc., a Eugene, Ore.-based company that provides marketing assistance to organizations and companies involved in the food business. The state paid the $20,000 cost of the program.

Brooks said that some county fairs in Maryland are considering eliminating petting zoos, but to his knowledge none has taken the move. He said others also are looking at ways to keep the animals out of reach of young children.

He said fairgoers will see more hand-washing stations this year than in the past, along with signs offering "gentle reminders to use them. We don't want to put up sign making it seem like they are entering a radioactive area," Brooks said.

When possible, he said, 4-H and FFA volunteer groups will encourage visitors leaving the animal barns to wash their hands.

"We're doing other common-sense things like steering pedestrian traffic away from areas where manure is stored," said Brooks.

The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene helped sponsor the workshop. "Agricultural fairs and shows are popular events for the entire family," said state Health Secretary S. Anthony McCann. "We are taking extra measures to ensure a healthy environment and encourage the public to do their part by using the hand-washing stations."

Even stronger steps are being taken in other parts of the nation to protect fairgoers.

The Lexington Lions Club Bluegrass Fair in Kentucky eliminated its popular live farm animal display and petting zoo this year. "We thought it was safer to go that route," Ron Mossotti told the Lexington Herald Leader newspaper. "We wanted to err on the side of safety. We know the kids will miss them."

At the Saratoga County Fair in New York, managers placed hand sanitizers on poles scattered about the grounds.

The North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation this month that requires stricter sanitation requirements for petting zoos. The bill was in response to an outbreak of bacterial infection that struck 108 visitors - more than half of them children - at a petting zoo at the state fair last fall.

"We had an awareness of the problems in other states," said Brooks, "and for us to do nothing would have been the wrong decision."

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