In Pile of Waste, Md. Scientists Dig Up a Response to Bird Flu

Temperatures in a chicken-composting bin at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore are kept at about 140 degrees.
Temperatures in a chicken-composting bin at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore are kept at about 140 degrees. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 20, 2006

The problem is one local farmers hope to avoid. The solution is a simple, if gruesome, one. When avian flu is detected in a single chicken on a farm, the entire flock -- often tens of thousands of chickens -- must be killed. So, what to do with all those dead birds?

Enter the humble compost heap.

The brown pile of recyclable waste is one of the latest tactics in the global effort against avian flu. A deadly strain in Asia and Turkey has killed millions of chickens and dozens of people, sparking fears of a worldwide pandemic.

Federal officials have held emergency drills in the District. Health agencies have created stockpiles of antiviral drugs. And through it all, two Eastern Shore scientists have been traveling the country on a mission of their own: to show farmers what to do if they wind up with thousands of chicken carcasses.

After trying to burn the bodies (too expensive), burying them (an environmental hazard) and trucking them to rendering plants (risking further spread of the disease), poultry experts believe that the safest means of disposal might be to roll the dead birds into a small hill and let the blistering heat of decomposition burn away the disease inside.

"It's as much of an art as science," said Nathaniel Tablante, associate professor of poultry health at the University of Maryland.

Tablante has spent the past three years studying the possibilities of recycling chickens. His office in College Park is overflowing with chicken paraphernalia: clocks, paintings, cartoons, even a little chicken statue made by his daughter after she learned about his job. But Tablante said he has no sentimental feelings for chickens. After all, he explained, he mostly deals with dead ones.

The idea of composting flu-contaminated chickens came to him and his colleagues while they were tracking a 2002 outbreak of avian flu in Virginia. The virus, a less-deadly strain than the one in Asia, cost Virginia's poultry industry an estimated $130 million and caused the deaths of 4.7 million birds -- a logistical nightmare.

On the first farms infected, poultry experts buried the chickens on-site, prompting a flood of complaints from residents worried about water contamination and property values. The state quickly stopped issuing burial permits. So scientists tried burning the bodies instead, but they couldn't keep up with the rising cost of fuel. Ultimately, most of the birds were taken to landfills, but in the two weeks it took to negotiate with landfill companies, the virus had spread to 35 more flocks.

Watching it all with equal measures of fascination and dread, Tablante and others started to wonder: What would they do if the virus reached the chicken houses of Maryland and Delaware?

At least one infected flock in Virginia was composted, officials said, but the option was largely ignored. Although the idea of poultry composting had been around since the mid-1980s, applying it to such large-scale mortalities was still experimental.

And so, a year after the Virginia outbreak, University of Maryland researchers -- along with Bud Malone, a University of Delaware poultry expert -- began their experiment, funded by a $36,000 industry grant.

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