Last reviewed 29 June 2012

By Martin Hodgson

Introduction

Farms that operate “open” sessions for young children to visit and learn about animals are being reminded to ensure that they have adequate plans in place to manage hygiene and safety following a number of disease outbreaks in recent years. The reminder is particularly relevant to those farms that encourage “petting” or touching of animals.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has underlined this warning by ensuring that providers are aware of the latest guidance, Preventing or Controlling Ill Health from Animal Contact at Visitor Attractions (Agriculture Information Sheet (AIS) No 23), which has recently been updated and includes a supplement for teachers and others who organise visits for children.

What should farms be doing to fulfil their duty of care to their visitors and what precautions can early years providers take to ensure that their children can access such visits safely?

Issues relating to farm visits

In the spring and summer months open farms and petting farms are very popular destinations for families, schools and early years providers who see them as an excellent day out and an opportunity for children to learn more about animals and about the role of farms in society.

Running a petting farm and opening up a farm to children is also a great way for farms to make some much-needed money and involve the wider community about their work.

However, there are important health and safety issues to consider to ensure things run smoothly and earlier this year the Health Protection Agency (HPA) warned that outbreaks of disease associated with contact with farm animals also tend to peak along with the visits.

According to the HPA data there were 61 outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness associated with such visits between 1992 and 2011, a third of them happening since 2009. A small number were caused by salmonella but most were caused by E. coli O157 or cryptosporidium.

E.coli and Cryptosporidium

E. coli O157 poses the most serious hazard to the health of people visiting open farms as it can potentially cause serious illness, especially in young children in whom symptoms may include bloody diarrhoea and kidney failure.

Cattle and sheep are the main recognised carriers of E. coli O157 but the organism can also be found in other animals, especially among the mixed species often present at visitor attractions. These include goats, pigs, chickens, horses, deer, llamas and alpacas. Farm dogs and wild rabbits can pick up the infection from an infected environment and infection can also occur in birds such as wild geese.

The organism is primarily transmitted through contact with animal faeces and people usually become infected through consuming contaminated food or drink, through direct contact with contaminated animals, or by contact with an environment contaminated with faeces.

Cryptosporidium parvum is a microscopic parasite carried by calves, lambs, deer and goats. It can cause severe diarrhoea in young children and the elderly and is capable of surviving for a long time in the environment.

The duty of farms to control risk

All farms should follow the information provided in Preventing or Controlling Ill Health from Animal Contact at Visitor Attractions (AIS23), available from the HSE. The guidance is not compulsory but represents best practice and will ensure that providers operate within the law.

The guidance applies to a range of premises, including:

  • farm attractions, such as open farms

  • animal petting or handling areas within other attractions (including those at zoos, etc)

  • city farms or other educational establishments

  • working farms with livestock that occasionally open to the public

  • rare breed and rescue centres

  • agricultural shows or country fairs where livestock are present

  • travelling menageries or mobile animal petting/handling enterprises

  • other similar visitor attractions.

The HSE guidance reminds farms that E. coli O157 and other micro-organisms that may cause ill health are subject to The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002 (as amended). Under these regulations owners therefore have a duty of care to ensure that adults and young children visiting their sites enjoy their visit safely by ensuring good hand hygiene after touching farm animals or their surroundings.

The HSE states that under COSHH regulations open farms must complete a risk assessment that identifies any risks of disease transmission. They should then take all reasonable steps to control those risks.

When undertaking the risk assessment the HSE state that farms should:

  • assume all animals (including birds) carry micro-organisms such as E. coli O157 that could represent a hazard to human health

  • recognise that, although tests are available to detect the presence of E. coli O157 and other micro-organisms, a negative test result does not guarantee the animal is free of infection as infected animals do not shed the micro-organism all the time

  • acknowledge E. coli O157 may be introduced to a premises at any time by new stock, wild birds and animals, or by visitors.

A number of essential control measures are recommended to help reduce the risk of infection through contact with faeces and faecal material. These include:

  • good general cleanliness around the premises

  • prevention of animal soiling on paths and walkways

  • containing animal bedding material within pens

  • the careful transporting and storage of manure

  • good animal husbandry

  • separating animal contact and non-contact areas

  • the provision of adequate hand-washing facilities

  • providing information for staff and visitors

  • proper supervision of animal contact and hand washing areas.

Farms are encouraged to site play areas, eating and picnic facilities away from areas where animals can be contacted, and preferably at the end of any farm trail, walk or tour, or outside the main areas of the premises. They are advised to make sure visitors have to pass through or by well signposted washing facilities before going to eating areas.

The role of parents and early years providers

As with many other educational or recreational activities, visits to premises such as open farms can never be considered free from all risk. However, the supplement to AIS23 advises teachers and others who organise visits by children on the precautions necessary to reduce the risk of ill health arising from contact with animals in open farms.

Before a visit staff and parents should:

  • read and understand the advice in AIS23

  • discuss arrangements for the visit with the management at the site where necessary

  • confirm that the control measures provided at the site match the recommendations in AIS23

  • discuss and agree roles and responsibilities during the visit, in particular, arrangements to supervise children and ensure they wash, or are helped to wash, their hands thoroughly after contacting animals

  • explain the rules for the visit to the children, stressing that they must not eat, drink or chew anything (including sweets) outside the areas in which they are permited to do so

  • explain why they must wash their hands thoroughly after contact with the animals, and before eating or drinking anything

  • demonstrate how to wash hands properly

  • check that cuts, grazes, etc on children’s hands are covered with a waterproof dressing.

During the visit staff should ensure children stay in their allocated groups and make sure they:

  • do not kiss animals

  • do not wander off unsupervised

  • always wash their hands thoroughly before and after eating, after any contact with animals, and again before leaving the site

  • eat only food that they have brought with them, or food for human consumption they have bought on the premises, in designated areas, and never eat food which has fallen to the ground

  • never taste animal foods

  • do not suck fingers or put hands, pens, pencils or crayons, etc in mouths

  • where practical and possible, clean or change their footwear before leaving and wash their hands after changing their footwear.

Anti-bacterial gels or wipes can provide added protection if used in addition to effective hand washing. However, staff should not use anti-bacterial gels or wipes instead of washing hands with soap and water. Soap and water is more effective and gels and wipes do not remove E. coli O157 in dirt.

Any child who is sick or has diarrhoea within two weeks of visiting a farm should see their GP as soon as possible.

Further information

Agriculture Information Sheet No 23 Preventing or Controlling Ill Health from Animal Contact at Visitor Attractions can be downloaded from the Health and Safety Executive website.

A Health Protection Agency leaflet, Avoiding Infection on Farm Visits — Advice for the Public, is available from the HPA website.