Is milk safe? What Florida should know about bird flu in cows. (2024)

The COVID-19 pandemic may be in the rearview, but could another virus soon derail life as we know it?

Public health officials are monitoring a virulent strain of bird flu, which has recently infected dairy cattle in at least nine states. Florida has yet to report a case.

Scientists fear that the virus could mutate in cows and find a way to easily spread person to person, triggering a new pandemic. Lots of things must go wrong, though, for that to happen.

“Should we be really worried yet? It’s hard to say,” said John Lednicky, a research professor at the University of Florida who has studied bird flu.

The risk to the public remains low, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Here’s what Floridians should know.

What is bird flu?

The influenza virus H5N1 emerged in China in 1996 and has since devastated wild bird and poultry populations around the world. Millions have been killed through infection or culling. It also has spread to some mammals, including a Florida dolphin that died in 2022.

The pathogen occasionally infects people. Rapid human-to-human transmission, like with COVID-19, does not occur. Nearly 900 cases have been reported globally since 2003, with Egypt, Indonesia and Vietnam seeing the most patients, according to data from the World Health Organization. More than half of those infected died.

The current U.S. outbreak is entering its third year. Until recently, it was largely a problem for birds. Florida recorded an unprecedented surge of avian infections.

Farms nationwide were forced to cull poultry, driving up egg prices. One South Tampa breakfast spot told the Tampa Bay Times last year a box of 180 eggs jumped from $30.59 to $98.51.

What’s happening with cows?

Starting in late March, U.S. agriculture officials began to report infections in dairy cattle. Cases as of Friday morning have been identified in 58 herds from Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota and Texas.

How, exactly, the pathogen is spreading between cows remains unclear. Scientists think it jumped into cattle sometime from November to January and remained undetected for months. That suggests there are more cases than officially reported.

The illness has not been severe in cows. Symptoms include low appetite and reduced milk production.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture now requires certain dairy cattle test negative for flu prior to transport across state lines.

There are about 125,000 dairy cows in Florida that collectively produce roughly 300 million gallons of milk per year, according to Florida Dairy Farmers.

Have people been infected in the outbreak?

Yes. Two farmworkers from Texas and Michigan have contracted the virus. Both were around sick cattle, and their infections were mild. The Texas man developed conjunctivitis, commonly known as “pink eye.”

Is milk safe? What Florida should know about bird flu in cows. (1)

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People in close contact with infected animals or contaminated environments are at highest risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The agency recommends individuals avoid sick or dead animals and materials touched by birds or mammals that carry the virus. Stay clear of feces, too.

Is it safe to drink milk?

Food regulators say yes — if it’s pasteurized.

In a survey of almost 300 dairy product samples, a fifth contained fragments of the virus, according to an early analysis by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The samples were collected at retail locations in 17 states and included milk, cottage cheese, sour cream and yogurt.

The agency conducted further testing to see if the virus was still infectious. It wasn’t.

Pasteurization, a heating process that kills harmful pathogens, is effective in inactivating the virus, the federal agency says.

Raw milk is a different story.

It remains unknown if H5N1 can be transmitted through drinking unpasteurized milk, according to the Food and Drug Administration. But the agency has long warned that such products can harbor dangerous microorganisms.

Florida bars the sale of raw milk for human consumption. Lednicky, the University of Florida expert, urged residents not to drink it.

What about beef?

Federal agriculture officials say they’re confident the meat supply is safe and didn’t find the virus in 30 samples of ground beef collected from states where dairy cows tested positive.

In an experiment, federal Department of Agriculture researchers found that cooking hamburgers to 145 degrees (medium) and 160 degrees (well done) would kill the virus.

The chances of infected poultry entering the food chain are extremely low, the department says. Cooking birds and eggs to 165 degrees would kill the pathogen, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Have milk prices increased?

There hasn’t been an effect on the milk supply or consumer prices yet, and for now authorities don’t expect one, according to U.S. agriculture officials.

Have you started drinking raw milk because of the H5N1 outbreak in dairy cattle? The Tampa Bay Times wants to hear from you. Contact health reporter Sam Ogozalek at sogozalek@tampabay.com

Is milk safe? What Florida should know about bird flu in cows. (2024)

FAQs

What is the virus in cows milk? ›

In late March 2024, highly pathogenic avian influenza virus (HPAI) of the H5N1 subtype was for the first time detected in nasal swabs and milk of dairy cows, increasing concern that HPAI A(H5N1) viruses may enter the human food chain.

Is milk safe right now? ›

All told, the agency has tested nearly 300 samples of dairy products, including sour cream and cottage cheese, collected from 38 states. “[T]hese results reaffirm our assessment that the commercial milk supply is safe,” the FDA said in its latest update.

Did dairy cows test positive for the bird flu? ›

Avian influenza virus type A (H5N1) has been confirmed in dairy cattle in nine states: 22 herds in Michigan, 15 in Texas, eight in New Mexico, nine in Idaho, four in Kansas, four in Colorado, four in South Dakota and one each in Ohio and North Carolina.

Is the milk still safe to drink? ›

Preliminary results confirm that pasteurization inactivates the avian H5N1 strains driving the outbreak, and the FDA has affirmed that the “commercial milk supply is safe.”

What is the dairy virus in 2024? ›

The first human case of A(H5N1) bird flu linked to an outbreak in dairy cows in the United States was reported on April 1, 2024, in Texas. It was also likely the first human infection with A(H5N1) from a cow globally. A second human case associated with the dairy cow outbreak was identified in Michigan on May 22, 2024.

What illnesses can you get from cow milk? ›

Raw milk can contain dangerous bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter, Staphylococcus aureus, Yersinia, Brucella,Coxiella and Listeria. H5N1 avian influenza ("bird flu") virus has been found in raw milk from cows infected with H5N1 avian influenza virus.

Is milk going to expire? ›

Expiration dates relate to milk quality, not safety. Milk is generally safe to consume after the expiration date for at least a couple of days. People will typically be able to tell when milk is bad, as the smell and appearance indicate any spoilage.

Is it safe to buy milk now? ›

The pasteurization process and the diversion or destruction of milk from sick cows helps ensure that store-bought milk is safe to consume. As the FDA states, even if the bird flu virus is detected in raw milk, pasteurization eliminates pathogens to a level that does not pose a risk to consumer health.

How old milk can you drink? ›

Milk can often be consumed after its expiration date, generally for up to three days for opened milk and up to seven days for unopened milk. Before consuming, it's best to look for signs of spoilage. You can tell if milk is bad by checking the smell, color, consistency and taste.

How does a cow get the bird flu? ›

Mammals can be infected with H5N1 bird flu viruses when they eat infected birds, poultry, or other animals and/or if they are exposed to environments contaminated with virus.

What is the virus in grocery store milk? ›

One in five samples of grocery store milk tested positive for bird flu virus, according to initial results from a nationally representative survey conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency announced Thursday. Preliminary research suggests the virus in grocery store milk is not infectious.

Can humans get bird flu? ›

Humans can get bird flu if they come in contact with an infected animal's body fluid, like spit (saliva), respiratory droplets or poop (feces). You can breathe it in from small dust particles in animal habitats or get it into your eyes, nose or mouth after touching body fluids.

Is milk straight from a cow drinkable? ›

What are the risks of drinking raw milk? Germs from raw milk can cause problems like: vomiting (throwing up) diarrhea (watery stool which may be bloody)

How to tell if milk is bad? ›

Spoiled milk may be lumpy, thick, and/or slightly yellow. Odor: Sour milk smells, well, sour. Fresh milk has barely any odor — and what odor it does have is not unpleasant. When you smell spoiled milk, you'll definitely know something is off.

How many years can milk last? ›

This is a trick question! Remember, milk doesn't have an expiration date, and if it smells fine, it likely hasn't spoiled or expired. “If milk exhibits any characteristics of spoilage, like an 'off' odor, flavor or texture, it should be thrown out,” Holdaway says. “Otherwise, the milk can be consumed with confidence.”

What is the infection in cow milk? ›

Bovine mastitis can be classified into 3 classes based on the degree of inflammation, namely clinical, sub-clinical, and chronic mastitis. A clinical bovine mastitis is evident and easily detected by visible abnormalities, such as red and swollen udder, and fever in dairy cow.

Does milk sickness still exist? ›

The cattle of these early settlers often wandered into the forest to graze, seeking additional forage outside limited pastures. However, milk sickness is very uncommon today due to modern farming practices, and cows rarely have access to eat this plant.

What parasite is in cow milk? ›

Milking Cows

Internal parasites that affect cattle include roundworms, tapeworms, and flukes. Roundworms often have the most impact on cattle and should be treated accordingly. All cattle will have some level of parasite load, treatment is necessary when that load begins to negatively impact the animal.

Where did lumpy skin disease come from? ›

Lumpy skin disease was first seen as an epidemic in Zambia in 1929. Initially, it was thought to be the result of either poisoning or a hypersensitivity to insect bites. Additional cases occurred between 1943 and 1945 in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.

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