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Bands Aren't The Only Things That Incubate At Music Festivals

Coachella, the massive outdoor music festival that kicks off this weekend in Indio, Calif., has become an "incubator" not just for new bands, but for rising food entrepreneurs, according to a story in the San Jose Mercury News earlier this week.

We here at The Salt couldn't help but chuckle at the use of the word "incubator" to describe the Coachella food scene. It reminded us of two recent studies out of Europe that documented how giant, multiday outdoor gatherings can also be a party site for foodborne illnesses that rock festival goers' bellies.

Now, to be clear, Coachella was not among the events implicated in outbreaks of foodborne illnesses documented by either study. But other well-known bashes were — like the epic Glastonbury Music Festival in the U.K., and the feminist-oriented Michigan Womyn's Music Festival here in the U.S.

Both events were named in a study published in the journal Eurosurveillance that surveyed outbreak reports at massive open-air gatherings held around the world between 1980 and 2012.

Foods like vanilla pastries, coleslaw, crepes, uncooked tofu and unpasteurized milk were blamed for spreading some really bad stomach-churning buggies, including E. coli, Salmonella, norovirus and shigella, as well as hepatitis A. Definitely not the kind of wild party festival attendees were planning on.

A second study, released by England's Health Protection Agency, sheds light on how bad hygiene practices by mobile caterers can lead to disaster. Over a seven-month period, English public health inspectors gathered more than 1,600 samples of food and other items from caterers at big outdoor events. They found "unsatisfactory" levels of bacteria on 8 percent of food samples – "higher than would be expected if good hygiene procedures were being followed," study co-author Caroline Willis tells The Salt via email.

The finding was interesting," writes Willis, a microbiologist with the agency, "but not surprising, as similar results have been observed in previous studies." Cramped conditions and inadequate access to water are both common risk factors among mobile food vendors, she says.

What was surprising, she says, was the contamination risk posed by a source that hasn't gotten much attention in the past: the security wristbands that both food vendors and attendees are often required to wear at these events. Fully 20 percent of wristbands sampled were covered with gut-busting bacteria like E. coli.

It makes sense these studies came out of Europe. As the Eurosurveillance report notes, 13 out of 20 of the world's biggest music festivals last year took place on the continent. But the lessons also apply in the U.S.

And if you're heading out to Coachella this weekend, take heart: Tyler Skrove, who oversees food inspections at Coachella for Riverside County, Calif., tells The Salt that inspectors have never had a report of foodborne illness at the festival in the three years he's been on the job.

But food isn't the only source of bad tummy bugs.

At the 1997 Glastonbury festival, which took place on a farm, E.coli sickened seven people. After much rain, soaked festivalgoers decided to embrace the all-encompassing mud by dunking themselves in it, Woodstock-style. Unfortunately, cattle had grazed there two days earlier, and left some contaminated presents behind.

Dear reader, I was one of these mud-jumping fools. I somehow avoided catching any nasties — though I did get to catch some awesome sets from Radiohead, Beck and Tori Amos.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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