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.
They called it "in-house composting" and believed that if they could kill and dispose of the birds where they lived, they could stop the virus from spreading. After their first year of research at a vacant poultry house in Laurel, the team was forced to test its efficiency in a real-life situation: In 2004, avian flu was detected on three farms on the Eastern Shore.
First, the scientists had to kill all the birds, or "depopulate," as it is called in the poultry industry. Wary of animal rights groups, the researchers are reluctant to discuss details, but the process involves plastic sheets, large tanks of carbon dioxide and the transformation of live birds into dead ones.
"I'm going to get letters from PETA about this, but, yes, essentially we create a gas chamber," Tablante said.
Afterward, emergency workers used a bulldozer-like machine to scoop up the dead chickens and the chicken litter beneath them. Mixing both, they formed a long, narrow heap along the middle of each chicken house and capped it with a layer of litter and sawdust.
The litter provides carbon and microbes. The carcass contains moisture and serves as "food." And the ensuing microbial action can produce temperatures as high as 145 degrees, hot enough to kill avian flu. The end result, vast hills of organically rich dirt, can safely be used to fertilize farm fields.
The outbreak on the Eastern Shore was contained to the three farms and resulted in the destruction of about 525,000 birds -- a fraction of the mortalities in other areas.
"It did the job," said Malone, who has since begun a second experiment involving the use of firefighting foam to kill the birds faster and more humanely, with the added benefit of moisturizing the compost heap.
Since their work on the Eastern Shore outbreak, Malone and Tablante have been traveling across the country on a federal grant, spreading the gospel of composting after large-scale bird deaths. Lately, requests for talks have increased as the more deadly strain continues to spread abroad.
Locally, the two experts have visited composting classes that the Maryland Cooperative Extension uses to teach farmers how to recycle carcasses from routine chicken deaths.
For their most recent class in Princess Anne, Md., the room was packed. Farmers had come from as far as Pennsylvania for the day-long seminar, which included composting recipes, diagrams, lunch (deli sandwiches, no chicken) and some helpful, albeit gruesome, pictures.
Most of the farmers, however, seemed unfazed by the gore, even when instructor Gary Felton stuck a pitchfork into a compost heap and pulled out a half-decomposed bird.
"I've smelled worse," said Joseph Paul, 63, a third-generation farmer from Reliance, Md. "I can be picking up a dead chicken one minute and eat breakfast the next. It don't bother me."
For most farmers, Paul said, the truly frightening part was Tablante and Malone's slideshow of avian flu-infected farms, swarming with scientists in white suits.
Just the idea of killing millions of dollars' worth of poultry and throwing it into a compost heap made him cringe, he said. "That's what I consider a real nightmare."