In 2006 there were three E. coli cases linked to the North Carolina State Fair. Officials believe it to be tied to a pita stand. In 2004, 108 cases of E. coli were reported, all linked to the petting zoo at the same State Fair. 

In April, 2005, William Marler of Marler Clark, the Seattle law firm that has represented hundreds of victims of E. coli poisoning, wrote letters to Washington State legislators on both the House and Senate Agriculture committees to encourage them to put into place requirements for fair and petting zoo operators that would likely reduce the likelihood of bacterial contamination among fairgoers. These include increasing signage and warnings about health risks associated with human-animal contact, providing adequate handwashing facilities at strategic locations throughout petting zoos, and designing petting zoos with the intent of reducing the risks of human contact with animal feces. An outline of proposed requirements is available at the Marler Clark-sponsored Web site

“I realize the measures we are proposing might seem extreme,” said Marler. “But we’re looking at this from the standpoint of having represented dozens of children who visited petting zoos and ended up with kidney failure and life-long medical conditions.”

Few states at this time have laws governing human-animal contact at petting zoos. However, Pennsylvania and North Carolina have both recently enacted laws after E. coli outbreaks traced to fairs and petting zoos in their states. Under Pennsylvania law, a petting zoo operator must comply with at least the following requirements:

  (1) An operator shall promote public awareness of the risk of contracting a zoonotic disease at the animal exhibition and of the measures necessary to minimize the risk of contraction by posting appropriate notices at the animal exhibition.

  (2) An adequate hand-cleansing facility for adults and children shall be conveniently located on the animal exhibition grounds. The operator shall post appropriate notices which designate the location of the hand-cleansing facility . . . and encourage the cleansing of hands after touching animals, using the restroom, and before eating.

Marler continued, “Pennsylvania and North Carolina have at least made a start. The federal CDC agency first released its similar Recommendations for Human-Animal Contact way back in 2001, but petting zoo operators apparently haven’t been paying any attention to those. Its time now that the government stepped in and passed enforcable laws that reduce this risk, instead of relying on petting zoo operators to police themselves. Our kids’ health is at stake.”

Children, the target population for petting zoos, are most susceptible to E. coli O157:H7 infection. Between five and ten percent of children who contract E. coli infection will go on to develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which can lead to kidney failure and damage to the pancreas, liver, brain, and heart.

“I’ve represented kids with varying levels of damage after suffering from HUS. Nearly all of them face the possibility of multiple kidney transplants in their lifetime. Most suffer from high blood pressure, and several have become insulin-dependent diabetics,” Marler added. “We can think about HUS being a rare disease, but its not in these cases, and these kids will have to live with debilitating medical conditions for the rest of their lives.”

Caring for a person with HUS is costly. Marler has represented children with HUS whose medical bills ranged from $15,000 to over $200,000. “And that’s just for the initial hospital stay and a year of check-ups,” Marler continued. “Over their lifetimes, kids with HUS – kids who were healthy before they were exposed to E. coli O157:H7 – will require millions of dollars worth of extra medical treatment.”

“The longer politicians and the fair industry resist changes, the longer our children’s health and the health of the fair industry itself will be at risk,” Marler concluded.