‘Composting’ birds: Avian flu hits West Tennessee farm and 267,000 birds are destroyed

At least two outbreaks in Tyson Foods poultry supplier operations

Poultry barns for a Tyson Foods industrial chicken farm are seen in Weakley County. At least 267,000 chickens have been killed and will be left to “compost” for up to a month because of avian flu. / Lookout Photo by John Partipilo

The first sign of something awry was the road closure on the two-lane country road that goes right past Will Burton's Weakley County farm, his fields, barns and the one-story house he shares with his fiancee and three kids.

White trucks -- emblazoned with the seal of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and "fire and burn" stickers -- began rolling past around the same time the family began smelling a terrible, new odor. It was distinct from the smell of chicken waste that has been ever-present since a 16-barn industrial chicken operation, a raw meat supplier for Tyson Foods, moved in two years ago over Burton's objections.

Within days, the smell had bloomed into an overpowering stench of rotting carcasses. The stench now permeates their home, and has cost everyone in the family a good night's sleep -- something Burton said his fiancee's 11-year-old son with autism has struggled with the most.

"He's losing sleep," Burton said. "Teachers are sending us notes home that he's not able to concentrate. I'm getting headaches. It's just like getting hit in the face -- not with chickens, but with death. Just death and rotting carcasses."

The chicken farm next door, Burton learned after frustrated attempts to get help from state environmental and agriculture officials, is the site of a massive outbreak of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza -- a virus whose only remedy is destroying infected or exposed chickens.

On Friday, state officials said that more than 267,000 birds have been destroyed in barns last week, just a few hundred feet from Burton's house. The carcasses will remain in the barns until a composting process is complete -- something that can take up to a month, according to information provided Friday by a Department of Agriculture spokesperson.

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The recent national outbreak of avian flu was first detected in Tennessee in a backyard flock in Obion County in September. Since then, cases have been detected in Tipton and Bledsoe County. While some outbreaks have occurred among backyard flocks, at least two have occurred on industrial farms that serve as contractors to Tyson Foods.

Scores of Tyson contract farms have proliferated in west Tennessee, often over the objection of local farmers and residents, to supply raw meat to Tyson Foods processing plants. All of Tennessee's reported avian flu outbreaks have been located in west Tennessee.

"Unfortunately, HPAI continues to spread to farms of all sizes," Tennessee State Veterinarian Dr. Samantha Beaty said in a Jan. 20 news release about the outbreak next door to the Burtons. "There have been four previous detections in Weakley County affecting backyard flocks. It's apparent this disease remains a threat to the poultry industry."

State officials say the outbreak poses no harm to human health from infected birds.

But Burton has questions about the impact on his family. He said he hasn't been able to get answers from state agriculture and environment officials.

As part of containment efforts, the state established a 12.4-mile zone around the barns, requiring all commercial and backyard poultry within the zone to be tested and monitored for the virus.

The process of killing chickens, then composting them inside the barns in the property adjacent to the Burton's house was approved by the state's chief veterinarian, the USDA and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the agricultural department spokesperson said.

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That process, laid out in painstaking detail in a 31-page protocol shared by the department, consists of adding a 6- to 8-foot mound of carcasses, litter and feed to a base of mulch on the barn floor, where it is then topped with a layer of sawdust-like materials. In about 28 days, the compost will be ready for removal, the protocol said.

None of the state interventions include mitigating odors, because no state agency in Tennessee regulates them, a source of irritation for Burton, who said he has contacted state environmental and agricultural officials, none of whom would offer any help.

No other environmental monitoring is ongoing at the site beyond the testing of wild birds by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources agency, the spokesperson said.

"Since composting mortalities is a common and accepted method in agriculture, no permit is needed in this case," she said.

"It's an ag-related odor, they told me," Burton said. Such odors are protected from nuisance complaints under Tennessee law.

The state's Right to Farm law, designed to protect Tennessee farmers from nuisance claims by suburbanites or other newcomers moving into an agriculture community, has prevented local farmers from challenging Tyson contractors over odors or other potential environmental hazards before.

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It's been a sore point for communities in west Tennessee communities that have seen Tyson contractors buy up land and establish large-scale industrial chicken operations in close proximity to residential homes and neighborhoods.

Burton has emailed Tyson Foods as well. Tyson, which does not own the farm, relies on its contractor to build barns according to Tyson specifications, raise chicks supplied by Tyson, feed them grain supplied by Tyson, sell them at rates set by Tyson and abide by all Tyson rules.

Burton has not gotten a response, he said Friday. Tyson did not respond to the Lookout either.

"My concern is that hundreds of thousands of dead chickens that are infected with the highly pathogenic bird flu are being left to compost on site, beside my house, beside water resources, stinking the whole neighborhood out. How is that safe or legal?"

Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.

In “composting,” dead birds are piled in 6- to 8-foot mounds with chicken feed, litter, mulch and a layer of sawdust, where it can remain for up to a month. State officials say it’s an approved method for disposing of diseased chickens.