Bird flu virus remnants found in grocery milk; FDA says supply still safe

The agency said that while they are continuing to study the issue, consumers should not be concern because the flu remnants are “inactivated” and that the findings "do not represent actual virus that may be a risk to consumers."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday that samples of pasteurized milk from grocery stores in the U.S. have tested positive for remnants of the bird flu virus, according to The Associated Press.

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The agency said that while they are continuing to study the issue, consumers should not be concerned about the safety of the milk supply because the flu remnants are “inactivated” and the findings “do not represent actual virus that may be a risk to consumers.”

“To date, we have seen nothing that would change our assessment that the commercial milk supply is safe,” the FDA said in a statement.

The agency said it believes that an avian influenza virus — or bird flu — that was detected in dairy cows in at least eight states led to the finding of the virus remnants in milk. The eight states where avian influenza was detected in cows are Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, North Carolina, New Mexico, Texas, Ohio and South Dakota.

The Agriculture Department says 33 herds have been affected so far.

Federal officials had previously said milk from cattle exposed or suffering from the avian flu did not enter the commercial milk supply. According to federal regulations, milk from sick animals is supposed to be diverted and destroyed. Milk that enters interstate commerce must be pasteurized.

Studies on whether pasteurization would kill the Type A H5N1 in milk dairy cattle have not been completed, FDA officials said.

The USDA said it’s confident the meat supply is safe. “As always, we encourage consumers to properly handle raw meats and to cook to a safe internal temperature” to kill bacteria and viruses, the agency said.

According to The New York Times, scientists have been critical of the federal response, saying that the Agriculture Department has been too slow to share important data and has not adequately pursued the testing of cattle for the infection.

The FDA did not say how many samples were tested or from where they were collected, only that it has been evaluating milk during processing and from grocery stores, the AP reported.

The agency is waiting for results of additional tests in “the next few days to weeks.”

Matt Herrick, a spokesman for the International Dairy Foods Association, told the AP that regulations for pasteurization ensure that the commercial U.S. milk supply is safe.

Remnants of the virus “have zero impact on human health,” he wrote in an email.

The FDA said that studies have shown that the pasteurization processes for milk “have proven effective for decades against a wide range of pathogens. Data from previous studies shows that pasteurization is very likely to effectively inactivate heat-sensitive viruses in fluid milk.”

The pasteurization process used for eggs — which takes place at a lower temperature than milk — has been shown to kill the HPAI virus, the agency pointed out.

Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), or bird flu, is a highly contagious and often deadly disease found in poultry. It is caused by avian influenza A (5) and A (7) viruses.

HPAI viruses can be transmitted by wild birds to domestic poultry and other bird and animal species. It can infect humans, as well, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To date, two people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with avian influenza.

Scientists confirmed the H5N1 virus in dairy cows in March after weeks of reports that cows in Texas were suffering from a mysterious illness. Cows with the virus generally recover from the bacteria that is deadly to birds.

The American Veterinary Medical Association and the USDA say that in 2022, more than 40 million birds in 35 states either died from disease or were destroyed to prevent spread of the virus.