Livestock and fair food shouldn’t mix: Tips to keep you healthy at the fair

Risk of getting sick after touching livestock at a petting zoo or the fair is real and tragic. Nothing can be done to eliminate the risk, but there are several practical things fairgoers can do to avoid getting sick after petting animals.

Your biggest worry regarding fair food should be the calorie count, but it always isn’t. Recently, some high profile foodborne illness outbreaks from petting zoos and fairs in other states have brought to light the problems that can occur when you mix livestock in close proximity to fair food. In crude terms, people run the risk of eating manure and getting sick. In some cases, these sicknesses have resulted in long-term health problems and even death.

Wash your hands. Michigan State University Extension says the single most important thing you can do to decrease the spread of foodborne illness is to thoroughly wash your hands before eating anything, and after touching, handling or petting animals. When hand-washing stations exist, hand sanitizer is not a substitute for washing hands. Soap and water are the best way to reduce the spread of illness. If no hand-washing stations exist, then consider hand sanitizer.

Clean your shoes. After walking through the barns or show arena, it is very likely that you will have some quantity of manure on your shoes. Pay attention to where you put your shoes. As soon as it is practical, you may wish to clean them.

Watch where you eat. Always choose to eat in an area that is covered and has no visible signs of livestock or other animals. Birds often scavenge in open areas and are not too particular about where they defecate, making open areas somewhat risky. Pay attention to the table tops and seats for signs of animal manure and avoid these areas as well. Eating in the barn, while socially acceptable, is probably not the lowest risk place to eat at the fair from a food safety perspective.

A number of fairs in Michigan have adopted “no food” policies in the barns. Adoption of these kinds of policies is not always popular, but can prove to be prudent. Healthy but upset 4-H volunteers and youth are far preferred over volunteers and youth with permanent immune damage from food poisoning.

It’s important to have fun at the fair. The goal is to create lasting positive memories of your fair experience. A nasty hospitalization to recover from food poisoning undermines this. Be safe and eat smart at the fair.