Farm fined £60k after leaving children fighting for their lives

BOSSES at a South Ribble farm shop and restaurant have admitted serious failings which left four children fighting for their lives after a ‘lambing live’ event.

Huntleys Country Stores in Samlesbury
Huntleys Country Stores in Samlesbury

Huntley’s Country Stores in Samlesbury admitted a breach of duty of care in failing to assess the risks which led to the catastrophic E.coli outbreak following the three-week event in March and April, 2014 in which visitors were allowed to stroke and feed lambs and watch sheep give birth.

At Preston Crown Court earlier today, Harry Wilson, 68, Managing Director of Huntley’s Country Stores, based at Huntley Gate Farm, Whalley Road, Samlesbury, pleaded guilty to a breach of duty of care to employees and visitors attending the Lambing Live event under the Health and Safety at Work Act. He was fined £60,000 and ordered to pay £60,000 costs to South Ribble Borough Council.

Sentencing, Judge Badley, said: “What was intended to be a lovely family day turned into a nightmare. There’s no doubt that the harm caused is at a very high level. It resulted in a life-threatening and life-changing injury to these young victims and their families.”

A total of 15 people were struck down by the killer bug – 13 of them children – with nine people needing hospital treatment. A further 15 possible cases were also recorded.

Four of the children went on to develop the deadly Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome after the bug caused their kidneys to fail. The youngsters were transferred to Manchester Children’s Hospital where they were put on dialysis. Some parents were told their children may die.

The incident saw children allowed to roll around in faeces-covered hay and cuddle infected lambs. Even hand wash basins were contaminated with faeces making it safer to actually not wash their hands.

The UK’s leading expert on E.coli 0157 and emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, Professor Hugh Pennington CBE, who worked on the case, said: “It is hard to think of a better way to facilitate the transmission of E.coli 0157 from infected lambs to children than by allowing them to romp in a pen with lambs, stroke them, and lie down in and play with the straw in the pen (likely to contain faeces), and to sit on seats contaminated with faeces to feed lambs, followed by washing their hands in a sink containing water contaminated with lamb faeces.”

The case sets a precedent as the country’s first prosecution for an animal-related outbreak of E.coli 0157.

Despite being given numerous copies of the industry code of practice, management at Huntley’s did not follow the correct procedure to keep the event safe.

The lambing live event only came to the attention of South Ribble Borough Council environmental health officers by chance, after a member of staff drove past the farm shop and noticed it was taking place. This was despite, at a recent inspection, a request being made to inform the council should such an event be planned.

Upon inspecting the premises, environmental health officers from the council had a number of safety concerns, which they made sure were addressed for the remaining four days of the event.

The first case of E.coli became apparent during the final bank holiday weekend of the event, with many more to follow soon after. Officers from the Government’s Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency took samples from the 24 lambs and 14 ewes and were able to prove the link to the ill visitors using a technique called VNTR profiling.

South Ribble Borough Council worked with six other authorities, as well as the Animal and Plant Health Agency and Public Health England on the case.

Councillor Warren Bennett, Deputy Leader of South Ribble Borough Council, said: “To put it bluntly, this is by far the worst breach of health and safety we have ever seen at South Ribble Borough Council.

“Despite repeated offers of help from our environmental health officers and numerous copies of the industry code of practice being given to Huntley’s, they blatantly disregarded all advice. The risk assessment was woefully inadequate, having been written by a member of staff whose only guidance was an internet search engine. Huntley’s was reluctant to accept our advice and change the set-up even after the first possible case of E.coli came to light.

“When families take their children to an event such as lambing live they have a right to expect all necessary precautions have been taken to keep them safe. Unfortunately in this case, they were severely let down, and for a number of families this terrible tragedy will stay with them forever.

“This should serve as a warning to other rural businesses thinking of holding such an event about the kind of things that can go wrong if you don’t follow the right procedures. They should always give us a ring and speak to our experts to ensure the safety of their visitors is paramount.”

The mother of one victim, who was struck down with kidney failure after bottle-feeding a lamb at the event, said the incident has ‘left a permanent scar on the entire family which we will never forget”.

Juliette Martin took her two children, Annabelle, 7 and Lewis, 2, to the lambing live event with husband Ian on 15th April, 2014.

However, 10 days after the event, Annabelle became unwell and after another four days she was vomiting violently and experiencing diarrhoea.

What was meant to be a fun and educational family day out resulted in Annabelle needing three operations, three blood transfusions and 11 days of dialysis.

Mrs Martin said: "The impact on the family has been extremely traumatic. Annabelle has developed a phobia of needles and becomes very anxious before any hospital appointments. Since the incident she has lost all interest in animals for fear of becoming ill again. We do not know what she will have to face in puberty and key milestones in her life such as pregnancy and old age.

“If we ever thought that by feeding lambs that our daughter would be hospitalised and fighting for her life we would never have visited Huntley's".