Matters relating to agritourism and its multiple issues were the topic of a conference held late August at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, CT.
Dr. Bruce Sherman, Director of the Bureau of Regulation and Inspection organized the meeting in response to an outbreak that occurred in March on a Lebanon, CT goat farm where 50 visitors became ill after visiting the facility. This meeting brought together representatives from a variety of agencies that play a roles in protecting human health and identifying diseased animals on any farm. The goats involved in this outbreak appeared healthy, bringing about an additional level of concern.
The program opened with brief remarks by Commissioner of Agriculture Steven Reviczky who welcomed the attendees to the session. The Dean and Director of the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Recourses at the University of CT, Gregory Weidemann spoke about the ever-changing demographics relating to the general population and those engaged in farming. His estimate is that less than 2 percent of the population of the U.S. is actively engaged in farming making the greater population less and less informed about the most basic of agricultural activities. When potential threats are present in the farm environment most people are completely unaware of their existence. This makes the need for regulatory agencies to take necessary measures to protect them from these possible hazards even more important.
Dr. Thomas McKenna, District Director, SPRS, District 1, USDA, APHIS, Veterinary Services acted as moderator. Dr. Megin Nichols, Enteric Zoonosis Activity Lead at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention presented the first update. Among the more common zoonotic pathogens found in nature are various fungi, bacteria, protozoa and viruses. These can be most commonly transmitted by mouth, through inhalation and through bite wounds, as would be the case with rabies.
Often the animals responsible for an outbreak show no signs of illness. Animals may carry such organisms and because the bacteria are shed irregularly, identification is often difficult. There appears to be seasonality to the shedding with summer and fall the peak times, coinciding with the times when animal exposure commonly takes place.
Among the venues where animal exposure occurs are fairs, petting zoos, animal exhibits, hayrides, farms and animal rentals as for birthday parties. As might be expected children are most likely to be exposed to infectious organisms during visits to animal exhibits. Active youngsters exhibit a great deal of hand to mouth activity and this is usually the weak link in the chain. Hand washing is the first and most important measure to take in these settings and responsibility falls first on the parents. At any exhibit where animal contact is possible there should be hand-washing stations readily accessible, at a height where even the shortest attendee can do a good job of cleaning up. There should be adequate signage throughout any animal display area reminding attendees of the availability of the stations. Personnel working the areas should remind everyone of the importance of hand washing. Kissing of the animals should be forbidden.
Those in charge of laying out displays and exhibits at fairs should take particular care to insure that food handling booths and animal exhibits are kept as far apart as possible.
Dr. Matthew Cartter is State Epidemiologist and Director of Infectious Diseases. His role is to investigate all cases of disease where the number of people involved exceeds that which would be expected in a given period of time. Dr. Cartter prefers the term outbreak to epidemic which he considers too alarmist. Once the Department becomes aware of an outbreak, there are a number of steps taken to investigate it. First there is an epidemiological investigation, then an environmental investigation and then a laboratory investigation.
Dr. Cartter’s office participated in the Lebanon goat farm outbreak together with the Dept. of Agriculture, the local health dept. and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The culprit in this case was E. coli157 a well-recognized and frequent cause of such outbreaks. Upon completion of the investigation the Department made several recommendations to the owners of the farm which included the need for hand washing facilities, adopting a list of procedures for cleaning and disinfecting, and restricting youngsters under five from admission.
Dr. Bruce Sherman gave the audience an over view of his departments activities and responsibilities which cover the whole spectrum of animal related activities from animal abuse to milk inspection and everything in between. Rabies control measures include not only insuring that the farm dogs and cats are up to date on their vaccinations but all other animals in the operation are protected as well. Consult with your own veterinarian if there are any questions regarding animal vaccination.
The department’s role in the event of an outbreak is to work with the other responsible agencies in conducting an outbreak investigation. It issues quarantine orders. It gathers farm demographic and operational data useful to the investigation and it obtains samples from animals for laboratory testing.
Winding up the morning session Lance Reeve, Sr. Risk Management Consultant for Nationwide Agribusiness presented some updates on the Food Safety Modernization Act. Another topic Lance discussed was what constitutes a reasonable standard for an animal exhibitor from an attorney’s standpoint and further that of an insurance carrier looking at a farm with agritourism.
In the eyes of some attorneys many activities that the public enjoys today would be eliminated because high liability risk factors. This might include fairs, petting zoos and farms hosting families as guests. For anyone considering such an endeavor, insurance and legal counseling was highly recommended. To list every event that might happen would take a great deal of thought and even then some obscure detail would surely go unrecorded.
Most consumers consider farm fresh produce purchased directly from the farm stand the very best from the standpoint of wholesomeness but there can be bumps in the road that can compromise the best of the best. So stated Diane Hirsch, Senior Extension Educator/ Food Safety. Despite everyone’s best efforts food can become contaminated in the field and if not carefully washed before consumption can cause illness.
Employee training is an important step in insuring that food handling and preparation is properly done. Written protocols are necessary in order that all employees are thoroughly familiar with house SOP’s. The trick is to insure that all employees adhere to those rules including those in management roles.
An adequate number of hand washing stations is critical.
Dr. Nichols returned in the afternoon to discuss means of preventing disease outbreaks linked to animal contact. Guidelines have been developed by all levels of involvement to minimize disease outbreaks at public venues due to animal exposure. Individuals at high risk such as children, the elderly and those who are immunocompromised should be made aware of the risks. Further, all displays where there is close contact between the public and the animals should be monitored.
Visits by school groups offer an opportunity to educate children about the unseen risks sometimes associated with animal exposure. Encouraging and practicing simple sanitation will do much to reduce the likelihood of illness.