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E coli: Advice for open farms

Course: Health and Safety | Last Updates: 7th October 2015

In September 2009, outbreaks of E coli O157 occurred at open farms in England where members of the public were encouraged to have direct contact with petting animals. In the largest of these 93 became ill, 28 children being admitted to hospital.

Sporadic outbreaks have occurred at open farms over the past 10-15 years, though none previously on this scale. Owners and operators of farm attractions need to ensure they are aware of the risks and how to manage them.

What is E coli O157?

Lambs-(Ian-Pigott)_6All animals can carry micro-organisms, some of which can be transmitted to humans (zoonoses). Escherichia coli is the name of a family of bacteria.

E coli O157 is a member of this bacterial family (sometimes called VTEC) and is the most common type in the UK. Children under the age of 18 and those over 60 are more vulnerable to serious ill-heath effects if infected with strains of E coli such as O157.

You do not have to eat many E coli O157 bacteria to be made ill. It can cause symptoms ranging from stomach upsets to bloody diarrhoea.

Symptoms take between one and 14 days to develop, but more generally people present with signs of illness within three to four days and can remain ill for up to two weeks. Between 2% and 7% of those infected with O157 may develop a more serious condition, haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) which can cause kidney failure.

How are the bacteria transferred?

E coli is likely to be present in all ruminant animals and in wild rabbit and bird populations, such as geese and seagulls. Although the animals show no signs of illness, the bacterium is present in their gut and can be secreted in their faeces. E coli enters the body by ingestion. Children and adults can catch it by:

  • Eating contaminated food
  • Touching the infected animals or their faeces
  • Contact with people who have the illness
  • Drinking untreated water
  • Playing or swimming in contaminated water, such as ponds and streams.

Exposure to the bacterium at open farms can occur from sources including stroking and feeding the animals, climbing or leaning on enclosure fences or gates contaminated with faecal matter or simply sitting on faecal-soiled grass. Ingestion occurs when people put their soiled hands to their mouths and transmit the bacterium to their digestive system.

How can infection be prevented?

The solutions to preventing ill health at open farm visits are simple and include good general cleanliness around the farm.


Separate eating and animal contact areas, and make sure there are adequate and suitable hand-washing facilities. Providing information for staff and visitors and proper supervision of animal contact and hand-washing are essential.

Separation of eating and animal-contact areas

  • Eating and drinking around petting animals should not be
  • Visitors should be directed to washing facilities located close to where they have come into direct contact with animals.
  • Visitors should only be allowed to eat in clean areas.
  • Those in charge of petting areas or open farm picnic areas need to ensure that visitors understand the need to wash and dry their hands and their childrenÕs hands thoroughly before eating, drinking or putting objects in their mouths.
  • Visitors should be discouraged from putting their hands to their mouths before washing them. Of course, this may not be so easy where small children are involved; many of whom use dummies, bite their nails, chew their clothing, pens or other objects.

Farm layout and signage

  • If farm animals are there just to be looked at but not touched, double fencing should be positioned so that visitor access to these animals is physically prevented.
  • Eating and picnic areas should be clearly signed with washing facilities available before they eat.
  • Exits should have signs to remind visitors that after removing their soiled clothes or footwear they need to wash their hands.

Hand-washing facilities and supervision

  • Suitable washing facilities should be provided on exiting petting areas, on entry to eating areas and adjacent to exits.
  • By planning routes carefully washing facilities can be sensibly positioned. It is feasible that a small unit may only need one set of washing facilities if the site is well planned and visitor numbers are low.
  • The number and height of the wash-hand basins you need to provide will depend on the nature of the visit, and what the visitors are doing.
  • All washing facilities must have clean running water, liquid soap and paper towels or hand driers.
  • For small numbers or occasional visitors, there can be standpipes or arrangements to pour water over people's hands but there must not be water troughs where other people can reuse used water or towels.
  • It is important to keep washing areas clean and well stocked. Supervisors should be available to direct or assist visitors.
  • Alcohol gels or rubs are not a substitute for proper hand-washing facilities.

How great is the risk of infection?

Where the risks from E coli are controlled, ill health following visits to open farms is unusual.

HSE and others believe children can enjoy positive educational experiences of farm life. During the Year of Food and Farming 2007-2008, for example, approximately 1m schoolchildren visited farms without a single case of illness from E coli O157 being recorded.

Impressing upon the public the importance of thoroughly washing and drying a three-year-old's hands is not easy, but it is essential. It is the only way that you can ensure that an enjoyable day out at an open farm remains exactly that.

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