The Health Protection Agency has apologised for making crucial delays in shutting down a farm at the centre of an E coli outbreak.
Thirty-six cases of E coli 0157, which causes diarrhoea and vomiting, were recorded in people who visited Godstone Farm near Redhill, Surrey. The farm attracts 2000 visitors a day in the summer and 12 children were among the cases.
Three of them remained seriously ill as Farmers Weekly went to press.
But, despite HPA officials identifying the farm as the source of the E coli outbreak in late August it stayed open until Friday 11 September and farm manager Richard Oatway came under fire from angry parents.
Mr Oatway defended the decision to keep welcoming visitors to the farm saying he had acted responsibly and followed health guidelines set out by the HPA.
Health officials did not insist the farm should close; instead they offered advice on how to cut the risk of the disease spread, he said.
“Our main priority has always been to make sure the farm is safe for everyone who comes here to visit.
“We have co-operated fully with all the authorities from the very beginning and will of course continue to do so,” said Mr Oatway.
Now it has emerged that HPA chief executive Justin McCracken has made a personal apology to the sick children’s parents and announced an independent investigation will be carried out.
“Initially the HPA said that the first case had come to light on 27 August, but it has transpired that the agency received a report of two cases in the previous week,” Mr McCracken said.
“If this information had been taken into account on 27 August, then the advice given and the steps taken on 3 September would have been introduced earlier and the farm might have been closed earlier.
The E coli 0157 bacterium cause diarrhoea and can lead to kidney failure, especially in young children. It is fatal in very rare cases.
E coli outbreaks are rare, says LEAF
Organisations promoting farm visits are stressing E coli outbreaks are extremely rare provided biosecurity guidelines are followed.
The coverage of the outbreak of E coli 0157 linked to Godstone Farm is being watched by groups who promote farm visits as a way of reconnecting consumers with food and farming issues.
Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF), the organisation behind the Open Farm Sunday initiative, stressed every year tens of thousands of people got great pleasure from farm visits.
Provided farmers took appropriate safety measures and provided good hand washing facilities were used by visitors, the risk of E coli was minimal, it said.
“It is vital for everyone that the increased dialogue between farmers and consumers continues to grow and that farm gates remain open,” said Caroline Drummond, chief executive of LEAF.