Children’s farms should follow tougher guidelines to protect people, says the St George’s, University of London infection expert leading an investigation into a major E.coli outbreak.

In a government report on last year’s Godstone Farm outbreak released today (15/6/10), Professor George Griffin called for petting farms to improve their safety measures.

Prof Griffin was tasked by the Health Protection Agency with leading the investigation into what happened at the Surrey farm. Ninety-three people, mostly children under 10, were infected with the potentially deadly 0157 strain of E.coli after visiting the farm in August and September 2009.

In today’s report, Prof Griffin made a series of recommendations to reduce the risk of visitors to open farms of contracting the disease, and to improve the response to any future outbreaks.

He said: “This outbreak could very likely have been avoided if more attention had been given to preventing visitors being exposed to animal faeces. Once it had started, there is no doubt that even with prompt action this would have been a big outbreak. Nevertheless there was a lack of public health leadership and a missed opportunity to exercise decisive public health action and thereby restrict the size of the outbreak.”

He added that the assessment of risk carried out by the farm was “inadequate” and said: “Farm operators must base their risk assessments and any preventative or remedial actions on the assumption that E. coli 0157 is present on the farm. A risk management approach which relies primarily on handwashing to prevent risk of infection is, in our view, misdirected.”

The Griffin Report’s key recommendations are that:

• Farms should ensure that the layout and design of public areas on the farm are such that visitor contact with animal faecal matter (particularly ruminant) is minimised or eliminated

• There is a need to raise public awareness of the potential infection risks when arriving at a farm attraction, emphasising the parents’/carers’ decision to allow children to have animal contact

• The designation of E. coli 0157 as ‘low risk’ is potentially misleading and should be reassessed so that it reflects the high impact and serious nature of the illness it causes

• An approved code of practice should be developed for the open farm industry, involving relevant authorities and in close consultation with leading representatives of the industry to underpin the industry’s initiative in establishing an accreditation scheme

• The regulatory agencies and others involved should explore ways of working together in regulating open farms, clarifying roles, responsibilities and relationships

• Research should be done on the following topics: development of rapid diagnostic tests for E.coli 0157; the identification and treatment of children who develop severe complications of the infection; the use of vaccines against the organism in animals

Prof Griffin said: “‘We have made quite a number of recommendations for the HPA, HSE (Health and Safety Executive), LACORS (Local Authorities Coordinators of Regulatory Services) and others to take forward. We are confident the implementation team will address the issues which have come to light during our investigation.”