No farm in the South West can escape the constant risk of E. Coli.
What is E. coli?
E. coli is a bacterium that lives in the gut of animals. Most strains of E. Coli are harmless to humans, but others, such as E. coli 0157, can lead to illnesses ranging from diarrhoea to kidney failure and can be life-threatening in extreme cases. Cattle and sheep are the main carriers of E. coli 0157, although infection can also be found in other farm animals, farms dogs and wild animals such as birds.
Infection is transmitted through contact with animal faeces, and this can occur in many ways, including direct contact with animals and environments contaminated by animal faeces, and through consuming contaminated food. It can also be spread from person to person.
As visitor numbers increase on farms as part of recreational and educational activities, it is essential to plan how you will control the risk of contamination, particularly for young children and the elderly. Measures should also be taken to protect your staff, particularly those working with livestock. These can be simple, such as providing hand washing facilities in places where there is a risk of coming into contact with the bacteria.
Assessing the risks
Assume that all animals, whether domestic or wild, carry E. coli, even if they appear healthy. Negative test results do not guarantee that animals are free of infection, as infected animals do not shed the micro-organism and may excrete it at a later date. E. coli may be introduced to your premises by new stock, wildlife or visitors. Be aware that family pets on the farm may also become contaminated through contact with faeces.
Personal items, such as toys or pushchair wheels, may also spread contamination.
As E. coli can be very contagious, you really do need to follow strict procedures to ensure a high standard of general cleanliness. Create plans of the farm’s layout and routes to define public areas and hazardous areas where the public are prohibited. Consider how you will control public flow through the farm, and use suitable fencing and warning signs near hazardous areas.
Items most at risk of causing contamination include clothing and footwear, work surfaces, door handles and gate latches. These need to be regularly cleaned and disinfected, particularly where the public need to use them. Additional care should be taken to control run-off from manure and compost heaps and soiled animal bedding by storing this away from other materials.
High risk areas such as livestock pens, milking parlours, routes used by livestock, and areas containing effluent, old bedding or manure heaps, should be placed away from visitor access. To avoid cross-contamination, animal manure and used bedding should be transported and stored carefully. Ensure that public areas are free from any build-up of livestock faeces. Reduce exposure and cross-contamination by regularly cleaning animal soiling on paths and walkways.
The most effective method for controlling the spread of E. coli is thorough hand washing. This needs to be done with soap and running water, as containers of standing water will only help to spread the micro-organisms from person to person even when disinfectant is added. Antiseptic wipes and alcohol gels are not an effective substitute for hand washing.
As E. coli can be transmitted through wildlife, care should be taken to securely cover waste bins to discourage foraging by wild animals and birds.
People on farms
Staff can be contaminated by E. coli when working in environments with animal faeces and need adequate toilet and washing facilities. Rest and food preparation areas should be kept separate from washing areas.
Full training should be provided to staff, both permanent and seasonal, about the human health risks of working with animals and, if necessary, on providing guidance to visitors.
Public visits to farms cannot be completely free from the risk of contamination, as even very low numbers of micro-organisms can cause infection in humans. But planning visitor routes carefully can help to minimise any contact with contaminated bedding or faeces and thereby minimise cross-contamination. Where visitors are allowed to touch animals, warn them of the risks and provide prominently signposted hand washing facilities, ideally with running warm water, liquid soap and paper towels. Facilities should be accessible for both adults and small children to use. Ensure that trained staff are always at hand and make sure that petting areas are kept as free as possible of animal faeces.
Younger children tend to have a higher risk of infection as they are less likely to wash hands thoroughly after touching animals and are more likely to put their contaminated fingers or other items into their mouths.
To minimise the risk of contamination, prohibit the eating of food in petting areas and provide any eating and playing areas on farms only after visitors have passed through washing facilities.
Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002, you are responsible for the welfare of both workers and visitors on your farm. This involves careful planning to assess risks to yourself, your employees and visitors, to prevent or control exposure to hazardous substances, to provide training for your staff and inform visitors of the risks, and to regularly review the effectiveness of your adopted measures.