Federal and state agricultural officials met in Connecticut Wednesday to discuss human and animal health concerns as agritourism grows.
Leaders from Connecticut’s agriculture department, the University of Connecticut and the state’s farm bureau gathered in Hartford to review how to mitigate health risks as agriculture becomes more of a novelty in the U.S. Greg Weidemann, Dean of UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, says modern farmers have taken on an educational role for the American public.
“In U.S. agriculture today less than 3 percent of our population is directly involved in agriculture, either animal or plant,” Weidemann said. “A lot more people helping to support that industry, but those that actually farm and raise animals, it’s a very small part of population. What that means is that the general public has become very disconnected from where their food comes from.”
Aside from a waning appreciation of farming, the public disconnect to agriculture is also causing health risks. So as a way to educate people, farms are increasingly opening their fences and barn doors for tours and open houses. But it’s not without consequence. Thomas McKenna, of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service, says the immune systems of most modern Americans are susceptible to pathogens found on farms because they don’t come into contact with livestock as often as they did in the past. He says this can lead to an outbreak.
“Even though it’s a small risk the impact of when we have something like this happen can be huge and so we need to minimize that risk when we engage with the public on our farms,” said McKenna.
McKenna says people can also infect livestock. Connecticut’s largest E. Coli outbreak in March affected 50 people, according to Matthew Cartter of the state’s public health department.
“Eleven people were hospitalized, three were diagnosed with the kidney problem Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome,” Cartter said. “There were no deaths.”
The outbreak was traced to a Lebanon goat farm about 1,500 people visited during March without access to hand-washing facilities or education about the risks, according to Cartter, who cited a CDC investigation report on the Oak Leaf Dairy farm. Megin Nichols of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there have been more than 400 outbreaks linked to animal contact in public settings, including opening up farms for visitation, in the U.S. since 1996. She says most people realize pathogens like E. Coli and salmonella need to be considered when cooking food, but not when it comes to being near animals.
“These pathogens that cause us to become ill don’t necessarily make the animals sick,” Nichols said. “So salmonella, for example, is normal gut flora for chickens and reptiles. It’s not necessarily something that’s going to cause illness in the animal. This is similar with E. Coli and cattle, sheep and goats. E. Coli exists in their gastrointestinal track, but isn’t going to necessarily make them sick.”
Nichols says some animals will get rid of the bacteria intermittently through their feces, making testing of the waste differ day to day. It was pointed out at the conference that the goats at the Lebanon farm were healthy as were the people who worked the farm. Nichols says limiting direct contact with animals and their waste, hand-washing stations and heavy emphasis on having visitors wash their hands can reduce the risk of an outbreak. Children under the age of 5 are most at risk partly because they tend to put their hands in their mouths. The elderly and people with immune deficiencies are also more at risk.