Pathogen Reduction in Anaerobic Digestion of Manure

Benefits of Anaerobic Digestion of Manure in Reducing Pathogens

Manure is a biologically active material that hosts and supports many microorganisms and thus can seldom be considered “pathogen free.” Certain manure handling techniques and methods, however, can limit the production and multiplication of such pathogens. Common sense must be used when making manure handling decisions. Pathogens are microbes such as bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and other organisms that cause disease. These pathogens persist commonly in animal manures. For more information about pathogens and zoonotic pathogens, see Pathogens and Potential Risks Related to Livestock or Poultry Manure. A list of animal related microorganisms (including some that are pathogens) are listed in Table 1.

Table 1. Animal Related Microorganisms
Fecal coliforms (an indicator bacteria, not all coliforms are pathogenic)
Salmonella spp. (pathogen)
Generic E. coli (not all E. coli are pathogens), including O157:H7 (pathogen)
Enterococci (not generally considered pathogenic)
Listeria (pathogen)
Clostridium (pathogen)
Mycobacterium paratuberculosis (MAP or Johne’s) (pathogen)
Enterovirus (pathogen)
Campylobacter (pathogen)
Cryptosporidium (C. parvum is the only one related to animal manure that is considered pathogenic)
Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) (The prions that cause BSE are not a true pathogen, but are considered an “infectious agent”)

Excessive or careless land application of manure and livestock facility runoff can contaminate surface water. This manure laden runoff can pose significant risk to human and animal health. Stored or fresh manure can be applied to land with minimal reduction of harmful pathogens, as some microorganisms can persist for long periods outside an animal’s body.

Treatment through anaerobic digestion can greatly reduce the number of pathogens within the manure and therefore limit the number of pathogens entering the environment. Anaerobic digestion (AD) of manure has a pathogen reducing effect with as much as 95-98% of common pathogens eliminated in mesophillic (~ 100 degrees Fahrenheit) digesters. The reduction in pathogens has the potential to be of benefit for: manure application in impaired watersheds when trying to manage certain pathogens such as Mycobacterium paratuberculosis (MAP or Johne’s) or salmonella, and when considering a community- based anaerobic digester where manure from multiple farms is combined, treated, and AD solids and AD effluent returned back to the farms.

Supporting Research-What We’ve Learned

There is a growing body of research which demonstrates the anaerobic digestion process can vastly reduce if not eliminate the concentration or presence of numerous organisms. Current research in this area is summarized below in Table 2.

Table 2. Potential for microbial (including pathogen) and infectious agent reduction by anaerobic digestion
Microbes Reduced By Anaerobic Digestion Microbes Not Reduced By Anaerobic Digestion
Salmonella Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) (Infectious agent–not a microbe)
Generic Escherichia coli  
Escherichia coli O157:H7  
Mycobacterium paratuberculosis (Johne’s)  
Bovine enterovirus (BEV)  
Fecal coliform  

Anaerobic digestion of manure has been shown to reduce the Johne’s-causing organism, Mycobacterium avium a subspecies of paratuberculosis. Thermophilic digesters operating at 135 degrees F. have shown complete elimination of Johne’s bacteria, while digesters operating at 99 degrees F with a 20-day retention time have demonstrated significant reduction [3]. Other potentially harmful pathogens to humans include Escherichia coli O157:H7, Salmonella, and the protozoan parasite Cryptosporidium parvum. These bacteria and protozoa have all been reduced in number of viable and infectious organisms after passing through a digester. Pathogen reduction of 95% is possible with a 20-day retention time under mesophilic conditions (95-105 degrees F.) with a digester [3].

Anaerobic digestion under mesophilic or thermophilic conditions has not been shown to reduce or eliminate Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or Mad Cow Disease. Although little is known about this disease, it is accepted that the protein-infecting prions are resistant to heat. Even thermophilic conditions (135 degrees F.) are not sufficient to destroy BSE prions [3].

In a study in New York state, samples were taken from a plug-flow digester over a 14-month period and tested for fecal coliform and Mycobacterium avium paratuberculosis (MAP), or Johne’s disease. It was found (see Table 3) that anaerobic digestion has the potential to reduce the number of fecal indicator bacteria in dairy effluent, including in this study, by 100% reduction of MAP CFU/gram. The substantial reduction of pathogen concentrations led the authors to recommend anaerobic digestion of dairy manure when concentration of pathogens is a concern [4].

Table 3. Pathogen results from dairy manure treatment
  Fecal coliform CFU/Gram MAP CFU/Gram
Raw Manure 3,836,000 20,640
Digested Effluent 3,400 136
Wright et al. 2001

In a study conducted by Washington State University on two operating anaerobic digesters in Oregon (2004), pre-digested and post-digested samples were taken bi-weekly, for six sampling events. Samples were obtained from: manure prior to the AD system, and solids and liquids post-AD. The design of the two digesters was different: one was a plug-flow and the other, a continuous mix, each operating at 100 degrees F. and with expected retention times of ~ 21 days and 24 hours, respectively. Specific organisms selected for evaluation were: Salmonella, Generic E. coli (including 0157:H7), enterococci, Mycobacterium paratuberculosis (Johne’s), and enterovirus.


Figure 1. Generic E.Coli concentration in anaerobic digester samples


Figure 2. Enterococci concentration in anaerobic digester samples

The data indicated reductions in fecal indicator bacterial concentration was > 98% (generic E. coli, enterococci, and enterovirus) in most cases (see figure 1 and 2). While the detection of Mycobacterium paratuberculosis was reduced in post digested samples, greater than 50% of samples had detectable levels. The data from this study suggests that AD treatment of dairy manure does not completly remove all biosecurity hazards [2].

Additional Resources


  1. Spiehs, Mindy; Goyal, Sagar. Best Management Practices for Pathogen Control in Manure Management Systems. University of Minnesota Extension. 2007.
  2. Harrison, J.H., D. Hancock, M. Gamroth, D. Davidson, J.L. Oaks, J. Evermann, and T. Nennich. 2005. Evaluation of the pathogen reduction from plug flow and continuous feed anaerobic digesters. Symposium – State of the Science Animal Manure and Waste Management. San Antonio, TX. Jan. 5-7
  3. [3.0][3.1][3.2]Topper, Patrick; Graves, Robert; Richard, Thomas. The Fate of Nutrients and Pathogens during Anaerobic Digestion of Dairy Manure. Penn State Cooperative Extension. Agriculture and Biological Engineering. Extension Bulletin. 2006.
  4. Wright, P. E., S. F. Inglis, S. M. Stehman, and J. Bonhotal. “Reduction of selected pathogens in anaerobic digestion.” 5th Annual NYSERDA Innovations in Agriculture Conference (2001): 1-11.
  5. “Pathogen Overview.” Information Collection Rule. US Environmental Protection Agency, 10 Apr. 2009. Web. 7 Dec. 2009.

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