E. coli outbreak 'should not deter visitors'

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Sign at Godstone Farm, Surrey
Image caption,
More promotion of handwashing is needed, the report said

Hygiene must be improved at children's farms, following the UK's biggest farm outbreak of E. coli, a report has said. But will further regulation damage the industry and discourage families from visiting?

Five million schoolchildren and families visit open farms across the UK each year, providing a chance to pet animals while learning where food comes from.

But in 2009 the potential risks were exposed when more than 90 people caught the potentially fatal E. coli O157 bug at Godstone Farm in Surrey.

The Griffin Report has said a code of practice, covering issues such as farm layout and hand-washing facilities, was needed to ensure the industry maintained the highest standards.

'Busy summer'

The National Farmers Union, which represents open farms among its members, said the outbreak needed to be kept in context.

"We take the issue extremely, extremely seriously, it is a harmful infection, but it is very, very rare," spokesman Terry Jones said.

"When you think of the millions of schoolchildren who are visiting farms each year, then you look at E. coli, only 5% to 10% of cases come from direct contact with animals."

And he said the outbreak had not deterred visitors, who were finding it a very cost-effective way of entertaining the family during the recession. "Most farmers are expecting an extremely busy summer," he said.

The report's recommendations were not "too onerous" and would be supported by the NFU, Mr Jones said.

"Farms will check out what they need to do to make sure they implement the report's recommendations. Parents will need to step back and consider it, but realise there's risk in whatever they do with kids.

"They need to look at it, but we still think it's important that kids find out where their food comes from.

"If the regulations are made for the industry, by the industry with the government, it will do two things - make sure kids can still enjoy days on the farm and ensure their safety when visiting farms."

Gary Richardson is chief executive of the Countryside Foundation for Education, a national charity which runs events to get thousands of children and families to experience the countryside.

He said the outbreak made the sector "even more aware" of the precautions that needed to be taken.

"All of our thoughts are with the families that had suffered. But the outbreak was a timely reminder that farms do whatever they possibly can do to minimise risk that visitors to the countryside and families could be open to," he said.

"You are never going to eliminate risk, but you can minimise it. What the Griffin Report is stating is that the sector can do and should do more to educate the public about what they need to do when visiting the countryside. It is very useful."

'Unforgettable experience'

The response of schools and families to the outbreak was "very balanced", Mr Richardson said. The number of school visits has increased over the past year and record numbers of people visited the Open Farm Day initiative across the country on Sunday.

"I've got great faith in the general public and in the farming industry that they will take on board what the Griffin Report is talking about and continue to deliver best practice.

"People do need to know where food comes from and where their energy sources come from, and to get out and smell fresh air and the countryside - it is an unforgettable experience."

And the National Day Nurseries Association said visiting farms was an "important learning experience" for small children.

It said nurseries would not stop taking children to farms, but ensure "sensible precautions" were taken.

Its chief excutive, Purnima Tanuku, added: "It's important nurseries speak to parents who may be fearful of their child visiting places where there is livestock about how the risks are managed to ensure that children do not miss out on the learning opportunities this presents."

But Paul Bettison, chairman of local government body the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services, has warned farm regulation must not become "too excessive".

He said those affected "deserve our sympathy" but added: "The important thing now is to establish the right middle ground between safety and enjoyment for millions of children.

"Risks need to be kept to a minimum, but if regulations become too excessive the danger is that many farms will be unwilling to welcome visitors."

He added: "The burden of safety inspection mustn't become so high that children can't make regular visits to farms, and see animals like pigs and goats up close."