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Bird flu has spread to milk: Is it safe to drink?

Patriot-News - 5/1/2024

Bird flu’s devastating impact has reached an American staple, milk.

As the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus has turned up in dairy herds in nine states and trace levels detected by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration in milk samples, Pennsylvania officials are closely monitoring the nationwide outbreak.

So far, the virus has not reached dairy herds in Pennsylvania, which ranks eighth in the nation in total milk production. Ohio is the closest state, and cases have been reported in Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, South Dakota, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Idaho.

It also has not been detected in milk produced in the state, according to the Pa. Department of Agriculture.

Last week, the FDA said about one in five samples of pasteurized milk taken in states where cows are affected showed fragments of the virus. However, the agency suggested the milk is not infectious after preliminary tests showed pasteurization is working to kill off the flu in samples.

“This additional testing did not detect any live, infectious virus. These results reaffirm our assessment that the commercial milk supply is safe,” the agency said in a statement.

On Tuesday, Pa. Department of Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding reiterated it’s safe to drink milk.

“We have adopted pasteurization as a principle of food safety, and particularly milk safety, that has stood the test of time,” he said. “There is nothing on testing on the commercial side that has changed our opinion that pasteurization is effective and the milk supply is safe.”

Pasteurization, a process of heating milk to a specific temperature, kills harmful bacteria and viruses to make milk safer, even if it leaves behind particles of the virus, according to the FDA.

Redding added that protocols are in place in the state to mitigate any potential spread of avian flu in dairy herds, as well as poultry.

Planning since 2022 has included state agencies administration-wide, the Agriculture Department and PA Veterinary Diagnostic Lab System, the USDA and PennState Extension.

State measures include a quarantine order that requires avian flu testing for any dairy cows coming to Pennsylvania from another state. The federal government announced that effective Monday dairy cattle must test negative for the virus before being allowed to cross state lines.

“My greatest concern has always been in an animal ag state like Pennsylvania, 70% of our market sales and proceeds come from animal agriculture, and if something happens inside this animal system that we can’t contain and suppress quickly, it would be devastating,” Redding said.

Bird flu has had a devastating impact on the state’s poultry industry. Since the outbreak started in 2022, more than 4.7 million birds in 32 commercial flocks and 38 backyard flocks have been affected in Pennsylvania, according to the USDA.

Migrating wild birds are responsible for spreading the virus. At least one person, a dairy worker in Texas, became infected with the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The virus also has been detected in several mammals.

No new avian flu cases have been reported in poultry flocks in Pennsylvania since February 2024, when 360 birds in a non-commercial backyard flock in Wayne County were affected.

The state’s dairy industry and farmers remain on alert, said Jayne Seibert, executive director of the Center for Dairy Excellence.

“We’ve been working with farmers to put biosecurity protocols in place and make sure they have a biosecurity plan and they have all the all right steps in place in case the disease would happen to come to Pennsylvania,” she said.

Unlike birds, Redding pointed out dairy cattle do not get as sick from the infection, and it has not been fatal to dairy cows. However, the virus does cause decreased lactation, low appetite, and other symptoms in affected cattle.

“It’s an irritation now with a lot of protocols. It’s a major concern if something happens and we’ve got to respond quickly,” Redding said.

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