Concerns over petting farms in light of E.coli debacle

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Concerns over petting farms in light of E.coli debacle

23rd June 2010

An investigation into safety procedures at petting farms has led to the introduction of strict new measures to protect the public.

The new safety measures - governing animal contact and increasing regulation - have been brought in after serious health and safety concerns were raised in an independent inquiry.

A panel led by University of London Professor, George Griffin - a world expert on infectious diseases - began the investigation following an E.coli outbreak at Godstone Farm in Surrey last year. More then 90 people were struck down with the O157 strain of the E.Coli bug - the largest ever UK E.coli outbreak linked to contact with animals - which led to 27 people, many of them children, spending weeks in hospital suffering from kidney failure and E.coli poisoning.

Karl Tonks, a Health and Safety specialist with Fentons Solicitors LLP said: "The 0157 strain is a potentially fatal bacteria that affects the elderly and the young, it is very different from general E.coli. Responsibility to inform visitors of the dangers associated with E.coli should lie with the farms. This is about minimising risk - farms must improve their safety procedures and equally - parents must ensure that children wash their hands after contact with the animals."

The investigation found public safety had been neglected claiming that the entire outbreak could have been avoided if more attention had been paid to ensuring visitors were not exposed to animal waste, in short - better safety procedures at the farm could have prevented the outbreak.

A commonplace practice known as deep litter was in use at the time, whereby clean straw is stacked on top of soiled straw so that petting pens where children can touch the animals do not require cleaning for months on end. Tests following the outbreak last year showed 23 of the 28 animals accessible to visitors were carrying the O157 strain of E. coli with traces of the bug found on gates and fences too.

"It is clear these procedures need to end if children are to be allowed near animals in the future, "said Karl, a Partner at the firm. "Farms must ensure petting areas are as clean as possible or even consider preventing children from having any contact with animals most susceptible to the bug, like cows, sheep and goats"

The inquiry was deeply critical of the response of the regulatory agencies, with officials at Tandridge District Council and the regional branch of the Health Protection Agency (HPA) accused of being slow to act. The first visitors were thought to have been infected in early August 2009, but with symptoms taking weeks to materialise it was not until the end of the month before both Tandridge and the HPA were aware there was a problem with several cases linked to the farm. Despite it being the start of the August Bank Holiday weekend, no restrictions were introduced - putting at risk the estimated 5000 people who visited the farm that weekend.

The report concluded that had contact with the animals been stopped when the alarm was first raised, the outbreak could have been limited to 33 people. Instead, 93 were struck down, 76 of whom were children under the age of 10. At one point every specialist kidney bed for children in London was taken up by victims of the outbreak. Today, some of the victims are still struggling to recover and may end up requiring kidney transplants in the future and a lifetime of financial support.

"This was a very serious case of public safety being neglected. It is imperative that the HPA work with their counterparts to prevent a similar situation developing again," said Karl Tonks. "A code of practice covering farm-layout and hand-washing facilities as well as practical measures to improve safety and regulation that all farms can implement is needed to ensure this growing industry continues, whilst maintaining the highest standards in visitor safety."

Since last year's outbreak, the rules on E. coli O157 have changed, making some of its symptoms notifiable. Like cases of measles, doctors must now notify the relevant authorities if any signs of infection are detected.

Some of the families affected by the outbreak are preparing to demand substantial damages in a group legal action with 28 of the 93 people infected due to argue that Godstone Farm was negligent in the way it handled the outbreak.

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Sources - BBC