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After 22 years, Milk Makers Fest in Lynden called off for 2016

Whatcom County Health Department Environmental Health Supervisor Tom Kunnesh, left, briefs volunteers and hand washing ambassadors on how to promote hand-washing at the Northwest Washington Fair in August 2015. The fair doubled its hand-washing stations to 24 after an E. coli outbreak at its dairy barn in April.
Whatcom County Health Department Environmental Health Supervisor Tom Kunnesh, left, briefs volunteers and hand washing ambassadors on how to promote hand-washing at the Northwest Washington Fair in August 2015. The fair doubled its hand-washing stations to 24 after an E. coli outbreak at its dairy barn in April. The Bellingham Herald

An educational program that teaches Whatcom County schoolchildren about farm life will not occur this year after an E.coli outbreak at last year’s event.

Its organizers aren’t saying whether the Milk Makers Fest was canceled because of the E. coli outbreak at the event last April or a pending lawsuit from parents of sickened children.

About 1,325 Whatcom County first-grade students, plus the teachers and parents who accompanied them, from all school districts in Whatcom County went to the festival April 21-23 at the Northwest Washington Fair & Event Center in Lynden. The festival had been going on for 22 years by then.

It was organized by the Whatcom County Dairy Women.

A total of 60 people likely were sickened in the outbreak that was traced to the north end of the dairy barn where the event was held, according to a report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in October.

The decision to not hold the event this year was made sometime after Christmas, according to Kim Vlas, an officer with the Whatcom County Dairy Women.

We are working on developing a more comprehensive farming educational program. We don’t have details to share about that now.

Kim Vlas,

She declined to say whether the decision was made because of the E. coli cases, citing the pending lawsuit.

“As always, our group’s heart is with those who were injured,” Vlas said on Wednesday, March 16.

She said her group wants to change the festival.

“We are working on developing a more comprehensive farming educational program. We don’t have details to share about that now,” Vlas said. “We are actively working on it and, as more details become available, we will certainly share them.”

Whether the event will continue to be called the Milk Makers Fest also wasn’t known.

“All in flux. All ideas are on the table at this point,” she said. “Those big decisions, like what it’s going to be called, what we’re going to cover, is just a work in progress.”

The lawsuit was filed March 7 in Whatcom County Superior Court by the families of six children who were sickened. It sues the Whatcom County Dairy Women, Northwest Washington Fair Association and the Lynden School District, where three of the children went to school.

The lawsuit alleges the organizations failed to protect children from being infected by Shiga toxin-producing E. coli 0157: H7, the strain that sickened them, because they didn’t follow established public health rules and guidelines, including from the National Association of State Public Heath Veterinarians and the CDC. Such measures are meant to reduce illness in people who come into contact with farm animals.

Seattle-based Marler Clark, a law firm that specializes in foodborne illness including the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak, is representing the families.

The event was designed to introduce young students to farming. It also gave them a chance to pet farm animals, including small horses, sheep, rabbits, chickens and a calf. There was a hay maze and scavenger hunt as well.

People who helped set up and take down the event — on April 20 and 24 — also were among those who were sickened. Some of those who attended the event later spread it to others who hadn’t, including family members.

Jim Frey, superintendent for the Lynden School District, released a statement about the lawsuit.

“The district sympathizes with the families and our students who may have become ill from exposure to E. coli bacteria at the festival,” Frey said. “Now that the matter is in litigation, the district has turned this matter over to its attorneys and it would be inappropriate to comment on the matter any further.”

Jim Baron, manager for the fair, released a statement, too.

“The Northwest Washington Fair is a Whatcom County institution, around for more than a century,” he said. “We are as much a part of the community as the community is part of us, so the impact to our kids affects us deeply. We are truly sorry and saddened.”

Baron added: “We believe that the organization that held the event on the fairgrounds took care to limit the risk of the kids being around livestock.”

He then referred to the Whatcom County Health Department’s preliminary findings on the outbreak. The county health department worked with the state health department and the CDC on the investigation.

“The health department concluded that this sort of outbreak could have happened at any similar event, anywhere across the state, even despite our many precautions,” Baron said. “The reality is that whenever you have livestock present, you also have a risk of E.coli transmission to humans.”

As a result of the E. coli outbreak, organizers of the Northwest Washington Fair made some changes that included putting greater emphasis on hand-washing during the annual fair in August. The fair doubled the number of hand-washing stations, and talked to fair-goers about the importance of washing their hands and reminding people in barns to avoid eating or putting their fingers in their mouths while in animal exhibit areas.

“We’ve worked with health officials to make changes to our layout of the fair to reduce chances of cross-contamination from the animal areas,” Baron said of other changes. “We’ve also increased our cleaning of areas with the highest use by animals.

“We’ve debuted many of those steps in the fair last summer,” he said, “and plan to expand our work this year.”

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

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