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Farm Animals and E.coli- Understanding and Prevention

Updated: Jul 23, 2020

By Sarah Everhart

Mother and child petting a cow (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).

Although E. coli bacteria is something mainly associated with improperly cooked or handled food, there is a growing health concern about exposure to E. coli after contacting farm animals at petting zoos, fairs, and at agritourism operations. The public’s growing interest in farming is wonderful when it benefits agriculture operators, but operators need to be vigilant about protecting visitors who come in contact with farm animals.

Pathogenic E.coli bacteria live in the fecal matter of goats, sheep, cows, and even poultry, and can survive for months in the soil and around pens where animals are kept. The E.coli is usually harmless to the animal itself, but if ingested through hand-to-mouth contact, it can make humans very sick. Very young children, people with compromised immune systems, and the elderly are the most vulnerable to developing life-threatening complications such as Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, which can lead to kidney failure.

According to statistics from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the number of E.coli, salmonella, and other intestinal, or enteric, disease outbreaks associated with animals in public settings increased between 1991 and 2005. From 1996 through 2012, some 200 outbreaks involving human-animal contact in public settings were reported. here have been some very tragic cases in recent years of severe illness and in some cases death of young children who came into contact with farm animals at agricultural fairs and petting zoos. After more than 100 people got sickened by E.coli following a petting zoo visit at a North Carolina State Fair, legislators in North Carolina passed a law requiring operators to get a special permit, post warning signs about touching animals, and set up hand washing stations within 10 feet of petting zoo exits.

The recommended prevention against E.coli bacteria infection is simply better hygiene around farm animals. CDC has recommended the hygiene guidance document 2013 Compendium of Measures to Prevent Disease Associated with Animals in Public Settings, drawn up by the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians. The document lists a host of measures, including posting signs at the entrance of animal areas warning of the dangers of touching farm animals; supervising children carefully when they’re in the animal pens and not allowing them to sit down in animal areas; disallowing eating or drinking near animals; and banning strollers, pacifiers, and similar items in these areas. Further, hand-washing should be encouraged strongly after any animal contact.

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