Dr. Saqib Mukhtar, an agricultural engineer at the University of Texas, is suggesting composting as an environmentally friendly way to dispose of dead poultry and cattle.
Describing his approach as natural rendering, Dr. Mukhtar suggests that his approach is more cost-effective for the farmer and rancher than incineration, less likely to contaminate the water table than burying carcasses, and less damaging to air quality than either incineration or conventional rendering.
The composted material, according to Dr. Mukhtar, could be used to fertilize crops.
There is, however, one thing wrong with Dr. Mukhtar's proposal – Campylobacter
Campylobacter, along with Salmonella, is consistently one of the two most common causes of bacterial gastroenteritis. Campylobacter's natural hosts include poultry and wide birds. The microbe also resides in the intestinal tracts of cattle.
Except for an outbreak of Campylobacter gastroenteritis that was traced back to the consumption of raw, shelled peas in Alaska, Campylobacter has not been associated with disease outbreaks linked to contaminated fresh produce. But using composted animal or poultry carcasses to fertilize crops could change this picture dramatically.
Earlier this year, a group of Canadian researchers reported that they had successfully demonstrated viable Campylobacter jejuni in composted cattle manure, even after 10 months of composting (the entire duration of the research study). The implications of this report are frightening.
Cattle feedlot runoff already has contaminated irrigation water and soil, resulting in contamination of lettuce, spinach and other crops with Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7. If Dr. Mukhtar's proposal for using carcass compost as fertilizer is adopted, I guarantee that we shall start to experience produce-related outbreaks of Campylobacter illness that rival past Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks.
I can only hope that the agriculture community and government regulators think this proposal through to its logical conclusion before we irretrievably introduce another pathogen into our salad greens.
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