Providing practical information to help you protect your farm from biosecurity risks

Composting and Mad Cow Disease

December 16, 2011

Cow close upIf you make compost or use it on pasture, you have an important role in helping prevent Mad Cow Disease (BSE).

Composting is a good thing to do, for a number of reasons. However, there is a potentially significant legal issue that people who make compost and those who use it should be aware of.

It is against the law to feed ‘restricted animal material’ or RAM to ruminant animals – cattle, sheep, goats, deer, alpacas etc. The following article explains the issue of RAM as it may affect those who make or use compost.

What is the risk?

The danger comes from a serious livestock disease known as Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE). In cattle, this is known as Mad Cow Disease (the proper name being Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or BSE). In sheep, it is commonly known as Scrapie.

Mad Cow Disease in particular is a very serious emergency animal disease. Outbreaks overseas have caused massive disruption to the cattle industry. That has resulted in not only mass slaughter of cattle but also huge job losses and business failures in the cattle and related industries.

Further, Mad Cow Disease can cause a human disease known as variant Creuzfeldt Jakobs Disease (vCJD), which is both incurable and fatal. Almost 200 people have died of vCJD in the UK, since the outbreak of Mad Cow Disease over there, and a small number of others have died in other countries.

Australia has never had a case of Mad Cow Disease and the purpose of the ban on feeding RAM to ruminants is both to keep it that way and to demonstrate to consumers here and overseas that our product is safe.

It is important to understand that a small amount of RAM can cause Mad Cow Disease which, in turn, can cause vCJD in humans.

What is RAM?

Restricted Animal Material (RAM) is any material taken from a bird, mammal or fish other than tallow, gelatine, milk or milk protein. RAM includes rendered products such as blood meal, meat meal, meat and bone meal, fish meal, poultry meal, feather meal, and compounded feeds made from these products, as well as unfiltered used cooking oil.

How does that relate to compost?

In some cases, compost is made entirely out of plant materials, in which case RAM is not an issue. However, there are several RAMs that often end up in the composting process. For example, most kitchen scraps contain some RAM (in particular bones, meat off-cuts etc), as does most waste from restaurants, pubs, food processors etc.

Sometimes, blood and bone meal is added in the composting process. Spoiled pig or poultry feed, which may contain RAM, might be included in compost.Also, sometimes poultry litter or hay/straw that has been used as pig bedding is included in the compost. This litter will almost certainly have some spilt poultry or pig feed in it and both pig and poultry feed may contain RAM. Poultry litter also invariably includes feathers, which are RAM. People who have chickens are encouraged to compost any dead birds rather than bury them.

What are your responsibilities when using compost that includes RAM?

It is okay to include RAM in compost. If you use that compost in situations where no ruminant animal can access it, there are no restrictions arising from the RAM feeding ban. For example, if you use it in your house garden, vegetable patch or around fruit trees, that is fine providing your fencing is sound and no ruminant animal can get to it. You should ensure that any ruminant animals are also unable to access any compost that includes RAM while it is in storage or in the process of being made. So, make sure your sheds and gates are secure.

If you want to use compost that includes (or might include) RAM in a situation where a ruminant animal might access it – the most common such use is as fertilizer on a pasture – you should keep all ruminant animals out of that paddock until there has been sufficient pasture growth to absorb the compost. In good growing conditions, this withholding period is 21 days. This assumes a rate of no more than 15 cubic metres of compost per hectare. This is the same withholding period as for poultry litter or manure that is spread on pasture paddocks. If the rate is higher, the withholding period will need to be longer.

What are your responsibilities if you make compost that includes RAM?

If you sell it, or give it away, you should ensure the person knows that it contains RAM and that they therefore have some restrictions on its use. If you are not sure that the person already knows about the ban on RAM feeding to ruminants and how that applies to using your compost, please point them to this information.

Does the ban on feeding RAM to ruminants apply to everybody?

Yes, and this includes hobby farmers – even those with just one pet sheep. We cannot stress enough that it might take only a small amount of infected RAM to cause an outbreak of Mad Cow Disease. In the United States, for example, the cattle industry lost access to key international markets for many years, resulting in massive job losses and business failures – and the cause was just a single cow with BSE.

For more information

If you need more information about RAM and compost or you wish to report a breach of the ban on feeding RAM to ruminant animals, please contact your local department of primary industries.

Article courtesy of the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks Water and Environment. Photos: Nicole Gates, Carolyn Lawford and Diane Woods