All is not well on the farm. Salmonella, BSE in beef and lamb, e-coli - the list of food scares has been long. And farmers are alsosuffering a collapse in their market prices as cheap, imported food floods into the UK. So more bad PR is most unwelcome.
Yet a summer news story (Environmental Health Journal, July 1998) alleged that school visits to farms were fraught with risk. "Hundreds of children are hurt or killed in accidents on farms," it read. "A large proportion of these arise from recreational and educational activities." Picked up by radio and the tabloids, the impression was created of a dangerous situation which teachers and pupils would do well to avoid.
Health and Safety Executive statistics do reveal all too many farm accidents involving children. But these include ordinary visitors, casual workers, the farmer's own children or even trespassers. Accidents to children on organised school visits are very rare.
Helen Castles, author of the EHJ article, acknowledged that the news story, with its pictures of school children enoying their lunch on a farm visit, was misleading: "The headline and pictures gave the wrong impression. A lot of the accidents are to the farmer's own children".
An HSE advice note to teachers recognises certain risks of farm visits. It emphasises planning the visit in advance with the farm management, washing hands thoroughly after a visit and before eating, proper supervision and approaching animals "quietly and gently".
The National Farmers' Union would like children to know more about the reality behind the industry which puts food on their plates. They encourage farm visits and have a list of farms willing to host school parties. Participating farms are inspected. "If levels of supervision are satisfactory," said an NFU spokesperson. "There should be no problem."
Teachers should not underestimate is the danger of food poisoning. Farms are mucky places and children want to be able to touch and pet animals. Hands will come into contact with animal faeces, which carry a host of infections, including e-coli. Edgware Infant school visited Bowman's Farm near Barnet in 1997. The farm was well managed and had hand-washing facilities but five-year-old Tom Dowling contracted e-coli after the trip. He is now severely brain damaged after the infection caused his kidneys to fail.
The HSE argues that the dangers should not be exaggerated. "There are very few of these cases - no more than a dozen last year." But teachers need to be aware that children with dirty hands on such a trip risk more than an upset stomach. Possibly the safest option is to visit an open farm.