Petting goatAgritourism is becoming a big industry. As our society gets more urbanized, there’s increasing interest in visiting farms and similar environments. Things like farm visits and petting zoos can be great, especially for kids. They’re also sometimes associated with infectious diseases, most often in kids.

Some agritourism events are well run and take a lot of measures to reduce the risk of disease transmission (and injury). Some… well… they aren’t living up to the increasing standards and expectations.

A few years ago, we did some studies looking at petting zoos and infection control practices. Various issues such as having high risk species (e.g. calves, young poultry), people eating in animal contact areas, limited handwashing facilities and lack of supervision were common (Weese et al. Clin Infect Dis 2007). A webcam- based observational study at one event showed that even with good design, handwashing rates amongst participants were relatively low (Anderson and Weese, Epidemiol Infect 2011).

I think things have improved a bit around here over the last few years, but it’s still not hard to find some pretty dodgy events. Further, it’s not hard to find reports of infectious diseases or outbreaks associated with events like these (for example, recent cases of E. coli infection associated with a county fair in Oregon). While these events can be rewarding, more needs to be done to reduce the risks associated with them.

An agritourism operator isn’t necessarily an infectious disease expert. As a result, information about how to reduce infectious disease risks is needed. Sometimes there’s just a basic “wash your hands” poster from the local public health unit. That’s a start, but is only part of the story. More comprehensive guidelines are becoming available to help facilities better design and operate their events, thus protecting the public and themselves (lawsuits are far from rare when it comes to farm-associated diseases, especially outbreaks).

The Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center (UMASH) has launched a new website with some good information for agritourism operators and the general public. These types of resources should be mandatory reading for anyone operating an agritourism event.