Resource Library

County Fairs, E. Coli and Other Food-borne Illnesses

Date: March 2020

Two of the more popular pastimes at county fairs are eating fair food and seeing the animals. These activities do not come without risks. Recent outbreaks of various illnesses serve as a reminder of how easy it can be for attendees to get more than they bargained for at the county fair.

  • Romaine lettuce was the likely cause of a nationwide E. coli outbreak in 2018 when 210 Americans were sickened and five deaths were reported as a result, including two in Minnesota.
  • Minnesota health officials linked E. coli O157 infections to a traveling petting zoo in 2014. At least 13 cases were confirmed.

Take Illnesses Seriously at Fairs

  1. coli is a common type of bacteria that can spread relatively easily. Illness can occur after consuming contaminated food, including unpasteurized milk and apple cider, water that has not been disinfected, undercooked meats, and contaminated fruits and vegetables.
  2. coli can also spread by contact with animals or animal environments. Although the major source of human illness is cattle, other sources include sheep, goats, birds, deer and pigs. In addition, the illness can occur after eating food prepared by people who did not wash their hands after using the toilet or coming into contact with bacteria from other sources.

Numerous other sources of food-borne illnesses, such as cryptosporidiosis and salmonellosis are common in the United States and can also be an area of concern for county fairs. In some states salmonellosis is the most commonly reported form of enteric (intestinal) disease and is one of the most commonly reported bacterial food-borne illnesses.

Coverage and Outbreaks

It is important that MCIT members understand that MCIT liability coverage may not apply to E. coli and related claims. Claims arising from bacteria are excluded under the fungus general exclusion in the Liability section of the MCIT Coverage Document.

The exclusion reads: “All loss, cost or expense directly or indirectly arising out of, resulting from or in any manner related to ‘Fungal Pathogens’ or bacteria whether or not there is another cause of loss which may have contributed concurrently or in any sequence to a loss. ‘Fungal Pathogens’ as utilized herein, shall mean any fungus or mycota or any byproduct or type of infestation produced by such fungus or mycota, including but not limited to, mold, mildew, mycotoxins, spores or any biogenic aerosols.”

Prevent Spread of Bacteria

To protect fairgoers and member entities, MCIT members should take measures to prevent the spread of these illnesses and establish guidelines and procedures for food vendors, petting zoos and other sources of animal contact at the fair. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed and published the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians’ (NASPHV) report in December 2017, “Compendium of Measures to Prevent Disease Associated with Animals in Public Settings, 2017” The report is available at

Risk management recommendations, including the key suggestions from the NASPHV report, include:

  • Establish protective guidelines and procedures for vendors and fairgoers for handling food and contact with animals.
  • Ensure contractors and vendors agree to protect, defend and hold the member organization, as appropriate, harmless from any and all claims or liability arising out of their operations.
  • Require food vendors to provide a Certificate of Liability Coverage that includes product liability coverage (for products consumed both on and off premises) with recommended limits of $500,000 per claimant and $1.5 million per occurrence. This coverage should include an additional insured endorsement, naming the member entity, as appropriate, as an additional insured.
  • Post signs warning visitors that they are entering animal areas.
  • Educate visitors not to eat, drink, smoke, use bottles or pacifiers, or put hands in mouths when in animal areas.
  • Establish transition spaces at animal area exits with adequate hand washing facilities for all, and follow Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines for accessibility.
  • Post signs or otherwise instruct visitors to wash hands when exiting animal areas.

MCIT has developed the Agricultural Society Loss Prevention Best Practices Guide that discusses animal-borne and food-borne illnesses at county fairs in addition to many other topics. 

The Minnesota Department of Health provides posters and other resources  to help reduce the spread of illness at fairs and at petting zoos.

For more information, members should contact their MCIT loss control consultant or risk management consultant toll-free at 1.866.547.6516.

Originally published June 2009 MCIT Bulletin

The information contained in this document is intended for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or coverage advice on any specific matter.