Avoiding E. coli Infections at Home and at Petting Zoos

Young girl feeding goats underneath fence
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The reports of E. coli cases among children North Carolina caused by a petting zoo at the State Fair has raised awareness of this serious illness. According to the CDC, people usually get E. coli infections from "consumption of contaminated food...unpasteurized (raw) milk, [and] consumption of water that has not been disinfected."

You can also become infected by eating food prepared by someone who didn't wash their hands after using the toilet.

Although some children with an E. coli infection simply get symptoms of diarrhea, which may be bloody, abdominal cramps, vomiting, and nausea, others can develop hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, with anemia and kidney failure.

The E. coli cases in North Carolina have brought this issue back into the spotlight, but it is important to recognize that this is not a new problem.

In 2000, Escherichia coli O157: H7 infections in Pennsylvania and Washington caused 56 illnesses and 19 hospitalizations, and they were all linked to school and family visits to farms and petting zoos. This doesn't mean that you can't take your child to a petting zoo, but you should take steps to do it safely.

Preventing Infections at the Zoo

According to the CDC, to reduce the risk for transmission of enteric pathogens, like Escherichia coli O157: H7, at petting zoos, open farms, animal exhibits, and other venues where the public has contact with farm animals:

Be Informed

Persons providing public access to farm animals should inform visitors about the risk for transmission of enteric pathogens from farm animals to humans, and strategies for prevention of such transmission. This should include public information and training of facility staff.

Visitors should be made aware that certain farm animals pose a greater risk for transmitting enteric infections to humans than others. Such animals include calves and other young ruminant animals, young poultry, and ill animals. When possible, information should be provided before the visit.

Take Steps to Minimize Risk

Venues should be designed to minimize risk. Farm animal contact is not appropriate at food service establishments and infant care settings, and special care should be taken with school-aged children. At venues where farm animal contact is desired, the layout should provide a separate area where humans and animals interact and an area where animals are not allowed. Food and beverages should be prepared, served, and consumed only in animal-free areas.

Animal petting should occur only in the interaction area to facilitate close supervision and coaching of visitors. Clear separation methods such as double barriers should be present to prevent contact with animals and their environment other than in the interaction area.

Wash Hands

Handwashing facilities should be adequate. Handwashing stations should be available to both the animal-free area and the interaction area. Running water, soap, and disposable towels should be available so that visitors can wash their hands immediately after contact with the animals. Handwashing facilities should be accessible, sufficient for the maximum anticipated attendance, and configured for use by children and adults.

Children aged less than 5 years should wash their hands with adult supervision. Staff training and posted signs should emphasize the need to wash hands after touching animals or their environment, before eating, and on leaving the interaction area. Communal basins do not constitute adequate handwashing facilities. Where running water is not available, hand sanitizers may be better than using nothing.

No Eating or Drinking

Hand-mouth activities (e.g., eating and drinking, smoking, and carrying toys and pacifiers) should not be permitted in interaction areas.

Additional Precautions

Persons at high risk for serious infections should observe heightened precaution. Farm animals should be handled by everyone as if the animals are colonized with human enteric pathogens. However, children aged less than 5 years, the elderly, pregnant women, and immunocompromised persons (e.g., those with HIV/AIDS) are at higher risk for serious infections.

Such persons should weigh the risks for contact with farm animals. If allowed to have contact, children aged less than 5 years should be supervised closely by adults, with precautions strictly enforced.

Additionally, raw milk should not be served.

Preventing E. coli at Home

In addition to taking steps to protect your children at petting zoos, according to the CDC, you can help prevent E. coli infections if you:

  • Avoid spreading harmful bacteria in your kitchen. Keep raw meat separate from ready-to-eat foods. Wash hands, counters, and utensils with hot soapy water after they touch raw meat. Never place cooked hamburgers or ground beef on the unwashed plate that held raw patties. Wash meat thermometers in between tests of patties that require further cooking.
  • Avoid swallowing lake or pool water while swimming.
  • Cook all ground beef and hamburger thoroughly. Because ground beef can turn brown before disease-causing bacteria are killed, use a digital instant-read meat thermometer to ensure thorough cooking. Ground beef should be cooked until a thermometer inserted into several parts of the patty, including the thickest part, reads at least 160 degrees F. Persons who cook ground beef without using a thermometer can decrease their risk of illness by not eating ground beef patties that are still pink in the middle.
  • Drink municipal water that has been treated with chlorine or other effective disinfectants.
  • Drink only pasteurized milk, juice, or cider. Commercial juice with an extended shelf-life that is sold at room temperature (e.g. juice in cardboard boxes, vacuum sealed juice in glass containers) has been pasteurized, although this is generally not indicated on the label. Juice concentrates are also heated sufficiently to kill pathogens.
  • If you are served an undercooked hamburger or other ground beef product in a restaurant, send it back for further cooking. You may want to ask for a new bun and a clean plate, too.
  • Make sure that persons with diarrhea, especially children, wash their hands carefully with soap after bowel movements to reduce the risk of spreading infection, and that persons wash hands after changing soiled diapers. Anyone with a diarrheal illness should avoid swimming in public pools or lakes, sharing baths with others, and preparing food for others.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly, especially those that will not be cooked. Children under 5 years of age, immunocompromised persons, and the elderly should avoid eating alfalfa sprouts until their safety can be assured. Methods to decontaminate alfalfa seeds and sprouts are being investigated.
5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). E. coli (Escherichia coli): Questions and Answers: How are these infections spread?.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). E. coli (Escherichia coli): Symptoms.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Outbreaks of Escherichia coli O157:H7 Infections Among Children Associated With Farm Visits --- Pennsylvania and Washington.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Preventing Foodborne Illness: Escherichia coli O157:H7.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). E. coli (Escherichia coli): Prevention.

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.