25 February 2000

Fingers crossed at farm open days after Ecoli scare

By Isabel Davies

FARMS opening their gates to the public for charity this weekend are hoping that visitors will be undeterred by a food safety expert who warned parents to keep young children away from farms because of the risk of E coli infection.

More than 80 farms are holding spring farm open days to show local children new-born lambs in an NFU initiative which aims to raise at least £20,000 for the NSPCC. But the event takes place less than a week after Professor Hugh Pennington called for an end for farm visits for children under five years old.

Prof Pennington, who led the inquiry into the outbreak of E.coli in Lanarkshire, made the widely reported remarks in an interview with the BBCs Countryfile programme. His comments followed the recent out-of-court settlement with the family of a six-year-old boy who was left severely brain damaged after visiting a farm in 1997.

"I think I would go to the extreme of saying that perhaps it is unwise to take a five-year-old, or under on farm visit, because we have had such serious complications in the very small number of kids whove been infected," said Prof Pennington.

Barry Davies, treasurer of the National Farm Attractions Network, said phone lines had been busy since the warning and some farms which are open to the public were having cancellations. By coincidence, crisis management is one of the topics of discussion at the organisations annual conference which begins today (Feb 25). Mr Davies said: "This is going to cause a certain amount of panic for the industry."

Nigel Embury, chief executive of the Farm Holiday Bureau said it would be tragic if the advice put people off visiting farms for a holiday. A farm holiday was an ideal family holiday and worth more than £15 million to the farm industry, he said.

But John Newton-Jones of the National Association for Farms for Schools (NAFS), said it was safe for young children to visit farms so long as Health and Safety Executive guidelines are followed. Guidelines introduced in 1997 include advice on washing facilities, animal contact, eating areas and information and signs.

"Circumstances where kids contract E coli are very few and far between. The risks are far greater on beaches – seagulls carry E coli- and in public parks. We are not seeing any reduction in the numbers of schools wanting to come to farms nor are we expecting any as a result of this advice. This is not new to teachers and not new to parents."

Around 14 million people visited British farms last year. But in the past 10 years only around 40 cases of E coli have been connected to farm visits. A spokeswoman for the English Tourism Council said visits to farms should be encouraged as part of a trend for more distinctive and different holidays.

"While we are concerned about the implications of these incidences of E coli with so many people visiting farms – visitor numbers went up by 65% between 1989 and 1998 – the relatively low cases of E coli need to be considered in proportion," she said.

Peter Gooderman, a doctor and prospective Conservative candidate for Brecon and Radnorshire, described the advice as nanny-state madness. He added: "The positive benefits of a healthy outdoor lifestyle is not going to be encouraged if we misinform children that farms are dangerous places which might kill them."