Whenever children visit your farm, follow this golden rule: Always wash your hands before eating.

It just goes to show that your mother was right. And in the case of children and farm animals the risk of not doing so is great. A study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine confirms that E. coli can be transferred from farm animals to humans. A recent outbreak of E. coli illnesses in preschool children who had visited a farm in Pennsylvania just underscores the point.

Generally tainted food and water are the most common causes of E. coli 0157:H7 — a bacteria that kills about 60 people each year in the U.S. and causes another 70,000 to become ill. However, animals can harbor the bacteria too.

The study, released in Thursday’s addition of the New England Journal of Medicine, was led by John A. Crump with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The investigation started in the fall of 2000 after 15 people took ill after visiting a petting zoo. Here’s what they learned from that incident:

  • Fifteen percent of the 216 cattle at the zoo were infected with E. coli.
  • Fifteen cases of E. coli infection were confirmed, 36 more were suspected.
  • People who become sick were more likely to have had more contact with the animals.
  • People that bite their nails, or purchased food or drink while at the petting zoo had a higher risk of infection, unless they had washed their hands before eating.
  • Most of the E. coli in the animals had the same genetic fingerprint as the strain that made the children ill.
  • Once the farm was closed to the public on Nov. 4, no new cases were reported.

Bottom line: After petting animals, always wash your hands with soap and water before eating or drinking anything. Be sure to enforce this rule at your dairy for not only your staff, but for visitors too.