Milk safety: Here is what the latest bird flu developments mean

Federal officials say pasteurized milk is safe to drink, but advise consumers stay away from raw milk

In the midst of an outbreak of bird flu infections in cattle across the U.S., federal officials put in place new requirements for moving dairy cattle Wednesday, ordering that cows be tested for the virus before being transported across state lines.

Just one day prior, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the discovery of inactive traces of the virus in commercially available, pasteurized milk. In the FDA’s announcement, the agency stressed that customers who buy and drink pasteurized milk are not at risk of infection.

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

But consumers were warned to avoid unpasteurized milk, as it could contain active H5N1 virus capable of infecting humans.

As the situation unfolds, here’s what you need to know about milk safety and the response of Georgia’s dairy industry.

Is it safe to drink milk from the grocery store?

In Georgia, all milk sold in grocery stores has been pasteurized, meaning it has been heated to kill harmful viruses and bacteria.

And since bird flu cases first appeared last month in cattle, federal agencies have repeatedly expressed confidence that pasteurized milk is safe to drink.

Pasteurization’s heat treatment is a step shy of full sterilization, but the process, which has been used for roughly 100 years, has proven effective at killing or disabling a wide range of potentially dangerous pathogens.

In its bulletin Tuesday announcing the discovery of inactive virus fragments in the commercial milk supply, the FDA said it is conducting more testing to determine “how, and at what levels, heat treatment (pasteurization) inactivates the virus.” But the agency and the USDA reiterated that “based on the information we currently have, our commercial milk supply is safe.”

What about raw milk?

In short, health officials and experts say to stay away.

The raw milk of infected cows has been found to contain high concentrations of H5N1, and the CDC has urged people not to consume unpasteurized milk. Dairy advocacy groups, like the Dairy Alliance, which represents farmers in Georgia and other Southeastern states, are echoing that sentiment.

“With raw milk, it’s always a risk, regardless of this virus,” said Geri Berdak, CEO of the Dairy Alliance, which counts roughly 75 farms in Georgia among its members. “There are absolutely no safety concerns with pasteurized milk.”

In 2023, a law passed by the Georgia General Assembly took effect, clearing the way for dairy farms to sell raw milk directly to customers for human consumption, if producers obtain a license from the Georgia Department of Agriculture. But according to Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA) spokesman Matthew Agvent, no producers are currently registered to sell raw milk for human consumption.

There are, however, 115 producers licensed in Georgia to sell “pet milk,” which is not supposed to be for human consumption. Agvent said that while there are testing standards for raw milk for humans, there are no such requirements for “pet milk.”

How is Georgia’s dairy industry reacting?

Georgia has not had any positive bird flu cases in dairy cattle to date, and the state is not one of the country’s top-10 milk producers. But with an estimated 92,000 dairy cattle, it is still home to a robust milk industry that produced around 235 million gallons in 2022.

According to the Georgia Milk Producers, a dairy advocacy group, Georgia’s dairy industry contributes around $3.4 billion to the state’s economy each year.

Georgia’s response to the cases in dairy cows is being led by the GDA and its Commissioner, Tyler Harper.

So far, the GDA’s recommendations have followed the USDA’s latest guidance and orders.

The USDA has urged dairy producers to monitor animals for signs of illness and exercise diligence in keeping dairy cattle apart from poultry flocks.

But the agency announced new movement and testing requirements for dairy cattle on Wednesday. Before moving across state lines, the USDA will now require those cows to receive a negative test for bird flu at an approved laboratory. The owners of cattle that have tested positive will also need to provide the agency with logs of their herds’ movements.

Agvent said the state is working to implement the new USDA requirements.

Georgia has not banned the import of cattle from other states and Agvent said the state has received cows from regions with positive virus cases. However, he stressed that no cows from affected herds have been brought to Georgia.

“In layman’s terms, all animals imported into our state must have a clean bill of health before they can come into Georgia,” Agvent said.

If a cow in Georgia does test positive, Agvent said movement of that herd “would be restricted and it would be monitored until clinical signs are resolved.”

To prevent human cases, Agvent said the agency recommends dairy workers follow CDC guidance and wear personal protective equipment around cattle, and avoid contact with their eyes, nose, and mouth, among other measures.

In addition, the USDA has urged dairy workers to take special precautions in handling unpasteurized milk.

“We know that the virus is shed in milk at high concentrations; therefore, anything that comes in contact with unpasteurized milk, spilled milk, etc. may spread the virus,” the USDA said in April 16 bulletin.