- DTN Headline News
Raw Milk is Popular and a Bird Flu Risk
By Chris Clayton
Friday, June 7, 2024 4:49PM CDT

OMAHA (DTN) -- The Food and Drug Administration is now asking state, local and Tribal officials to stop the sale of raw, unpasteurized milk that could contain the H5N1 virus and increasing surveillance and testing of dairy herds that might sell raw milk.

In an open letter posted Thursday, FDA officials elevated their concerns about raw milk. With sales of raw milk allowed in some form in most states, FDA called on health officials to distribute more information to the public about health risks of consuming raw milk and monitor dairy herds more closely.

FDA appears to be facing an uphill battle in trying to warn consumers about raw milk. The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times this week each had articles highlighting the increasing popularity of raw milk, driven in part by social influencers. One California farm, Raw Farm, is the largest supplier of unpasteurized milk in California and has seen demand take off. It is on track for $30 million in sales this year, the WSJ reported.

RISKS OF UNPASTEURIZED MILK

Alan Bjerga, executive vice president of communication for the National Milk Producers Federation, said the group supports FDA's efforts to alert consumers about the risks of unpasteurized milk.

"Pasteurization is essential to food safety. Raw milk consumption creates an unnecessary health risk that isn't good for consumers or for dairy farmers who depend on consumer confidence in their products," Bjerga said in a statement to DTN. "Just as we have appreciated FDA's reaffirmation of pasteurization as an effective guardian of public health during this H5N1 outbreak, we support FDA's efforts to remind consumers of the corollary -- that consuming unpasteurized milk removes a necessary safeguard and shouldn't be encouraged."

Iowa and Minnesota reported their first cases of H5N1 in dairy cattle this week. Michigan on Friday also reported its 25th dairy herd infected with the virus. Iowa on Friday reported its second dairy herd infected in three days. Iowa officials also wrote Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack seeking financial support to aid both dairies and poultry operations, as well as assistance with responding to the virus. There now are at least 86 dairies in 11 states with confirmed cases of infected cattle since the outbreak began in late March.

Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, D, on Friday toured a dairy farm to champion National Dairy Month and tout the safety of pasteurized dairy products.

"We know we have incredible dairy farmers all across the state, and also dairy is delicious and one of my favorite things to consume, of course," Flanagan said in a post on social platform X.

DAIRY COW HEALTH REPORTS

Reuters also reported Thursday that infected dairy cows in at least five states have died or been slaughtered because they did not recover from the virus.

USDA on Friday responded to DTN that the Department has been aware of a few mortalities and that some animals were euthanized before H5N1 was identified as the cause of the cows' illnesses. USDA stated the Reuters article "failed to make clear that there is a difference between a cow dying from an H5N1 infection versus a farmer choosing to cull for a variety of reasons. As you know, culling livestock is a routine production management decision made for many reasons (i.e. animal welfare, poor performance, disease susceptibility, controlling herd size and composition, etc.) that we expect to continue. USDA previously stated that we would not depopulate or indemnify cattle based on an HPAI detection, because they have been recovering well with palliative care. Data gathered and reported to the USDA indicates that the vast majority of affected cattle recover well with supportive care. The stats shared in the Reuters story back this up."

USDA also has an ongoing study at an Agricultural Research Service lab in Ames, Iowa, to "evaluate the ability to mimic clinical symptoms observed in naturally infected animals in a laboratory setting, which will enable better understanding of the disease process and eventually enable vaccine testing."

Live virus was found in meat tissue for at least one dairy cow that was sent for slaughter but condemned by USDA and tested for the virus. Testing by FDA also has found fragments of the virus in pasteurized milk, though the virus was not live, meaning the pasteurization process killed the virus.

USDA began a voluntary milk testing program this past week that encourages farmers to test their bulk milk for the virus.

At least three dairy workers -- one in Texas and two in Michigan -- also have tested positive for the virus.

BANS RELATED TO RAW MILK

Raw milk for human consumption is banned from interstate shipping and sale. Still, at least 14 states allow retail sales of raw milk and 18 other states allow on-farm sales. Other states allow the sale of raw milk for pets, while just a small number of states have outright bans on raw milk.

FDA stated raw milk has the potential to contain live H5N1 virus, so "it represents a potential route of consumer exposure to the virus." Still, FDA added, "Based on the limited research and information available, we do not know at this time if the HPAI H5N1 virus can be transmitted to humans through the consumption of raw milk and products made from raw milk from infected cows. However, exposures on affected farms are associated with three documented cases of H5N1 illness in dairy workers."

So far, officials have not identified if any dairy herd infected with the H5N1 virus also sold raw milk from their farm to consumers. FDA, in its letter, stated the agency is conducting more research on the virus in raw milk products.

The National Institutes of Health reported this week that its study showed the H5N1 virus survived in raw dairy milk kept in refrigeration for five weeks.

In monitoring dairy herds, FDA stated producers should discard milk from symptomatic cows. Any raw milk from exposed cattle that is fed to calves or other animals also should be heat-treated or pasteurized. If H5N1 is identified within a herd, there is a risk that viable virus could be present in raw milk from that herd, even when clinically ill cows are segregated, FDA noted.

See FDA website: https://www.fda.gov/…

Also see, "Minnesota, Iowa Dairy Farms Infected With H5N1 as Number of Cases Rises," https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on social platform X @ChrisClaytonDTN

**

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