What is E.coli?
Escherichia coli, commonly known as E. coli, and cryptosporidium
are the two micro-organisms responsible for causing the majority of
outbreaks of infectious intestinal disease. E. coli is a type of
bacteria often found in the lower intestine of warm-blooded
animals. Most strains of E. coli are harmless, but some strains can
produce symptoms ranging from severe diarrhoea to kidney failure.
Animal faeces present the most common risk of infection so people
working with livestock are at particular risk of coming into
contact with the bacteria.
How do people become infected?
Among farm animals, cattle and sheep are the main carriers, but
E. coli may be present in other livestock as well as in wild
animals, some birds and farm dogs and cats. Livestock may carry E.
coli in their intestines even if they appear healthy. New stock
should always be tested as they may carry the bacteria. A negative
test is not a guarantee that an animal is free from infection so,
for the purpose of controlling contamination, one should always
assume that all animals are carriers.
People infected with E. coli are very contagious and need to
ensure that they do not pass on the contamination to others.
Measures to prevent E.coli
High standards of general cleanliness should be observed
throughout the farm. Infection may be passed on in a variety of
ways. Any surface may become contaminated if it comes into contact
with people, animals or animal faeces. Those items most at risk of
contamination include clothing, footwear, farm machinery, gates,
latches and door handles. Following good E. coli procedures will
also help to control other bacterial infections.
Thorough hand washing is the most effective method of removing
dirt and contamination and therefore stopping the spread of the
bacteria. It is essential to use soap and running water for washing
hands. The use of containers of standing water, such as buckets or
troughs, will cause micro-organisms in the water to spread from
person to person. Adding disinfectant to the water does not change
this. Antiseptic wipes or gels do not offer an effective
alternative to hand washing.
Avoid the risk of run-off from manure or compost heaps as this
could cause contamination. Manure, compost and soiled bedding
should always be stored in isolation from other items.
The layout of routes within the farm should be planned to
minimise the risk of cross-contamination. Minimise visitor
access to areas containing livestock pens, feeding areas, milking
areas, faeces, soiled bedding, and effluent. Where possible,
visitors should be prevented from using routes used for livestock
and farm vehicles.
All areas within the farm should be well defined according to
their particular use, as this will help to reduce contamination
between areas. As well as providing directional information,
signage should also provide information to draw attention to
high-risk areas, health risks and precautions that should be
Adequate toilet and washing facilities should be provided for
staff and visitors and care taken to keep them separate from food
Ensure that waste bins are sturdy, well covered and of adequate
capacity, to discourage wild animals and birds.
Risks for farms open to the public
Managers and staff of open farms and petting farms should be
particularly aware that younger children are at increased risk of
infection. Petting animals present a particular risk, as younger
children are prone to putting their fingers in their mouths after
touching animals. Make parents aware of these risks and ensure that
hand washing facilities are available and prominently signposted.
Keep petting areas entirely separate from eating and playing areas
and do not allow the consumption of food and drink within petting
As a farm owner or manager, you are responsible for the welfare
of farm workers and anyone who visits the farm. As E. coli is a
micro-organism that may cause ill health, you are required, under
the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations
2002, to assess risks, prevent exposure to risks, provide staff
training and to inform visitors about risks.
Health Protection Agency leaflet on E. coli O157.
Health and Safety Executive advice on E. coli O157.
Preventing or controlling ill health from animal contact at
visitor attractions. Agriculture Information Sheet No 23 (rev2)
E. coli O157 in cattle: leaflet for farmers (Veterinary
Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH).