Consumers warned against drinking raw milk as FDA studies bird flu

Questions surrounding bird flu in milk remain as FDA continues work to ensure pasteurized milk is safe
A glass of milk.  (Alexandra Malyk/Dreamstime/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

A glass of milk. (Alexandra Malyk/Dreamstime/TNS)

After fragments of the virus that causes bird flu were found in samples of commercially available pasteurized milk, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains pasteurized milk sold in grocery stores is safe to drink.

But questions are mounting about consuming raw or unpasteurized milk. It has grown in popularity in recent years due to interest from consumers who believe raw milk tastes better and is more nutritious.

Last year, Georgia joined a growing number of states allowing dairy farmers to obtain a license sell raw milk for human consumption, despite testimony from public health officials about the serious health risks it can pose.

But as of this week, there are no operations in Georgia licensed to sell raw milk for human consumption. The state Department of Agriculture allows dairy farms to sell raw milk only as “pet milk” for animals, and it must be labeled that way.

All indications suggest Georgians are drinking raw “pet milk.”

A Facebook page dedicated to finding farmers who sell raw milk in Georgia has over 3,500 members, and one member in South Georgia said she was willing to drive up to three hours for it.

If researchers find that bird flu can be transmitted through drinking raw milk, the underground network of eager consumers could pose a public health threat. This version of bird flu — known as highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) or by its scientific name of H5N1 — was discovered in a dairy farm worker on April 1. That case marked the first time a human had caught the virus from a mammal. The virus has now been found in dairy cattle in eight states, but not Georgia.

Here’s what you need to know about raw milk and the ongoing bird flu outbreak in dairy herds:

How do people buy raw milk in Georgia?

The sale of raw “pet milk,” which is not approved for human consumption, has been allowed in Georgia for years. Since July 2023, the Raw Dairy Act has allowed dairy farmers to get a license that states their raw milk products are “Grade A” for human consumption and follow food safety regulations.

But a spokesperson for Georgia Department of Agriculture said no one in Georgia has ever been licensed to sell raw milk to humans.

“At this time, no raw milk for human consumption in Georgia should be offered for sale as no establishments are licensed to conduct such sales,” Matthew Agvent, spokesperson for Georgia Department of Agriculture said in an email to the AJC.

People can buy raw milk labeled “pet milk” directly from farmers or at farm stands and farmer’s markets — 115 are licensed around the state to sell pet milk.

Dairy farmers are required to include a warning label on raw milk packaging: “Warning: This is a raw milk product that is not pasteurized and may increase risk of foodborne illness.”

Is it safe to consume raw milk?

The short answer is no, according to the FDA and other health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Bacteria commonly found in raw milk include listeria, campylobacter, salmonella, and E. coli. Illnesses caused by these bacteria can be especially serious for infants, young children, the elderly, and the immunocompromised.

A spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Public Health said in an email, the agency has “always cautioned about the serious health risks associated with raw milk. From a public health perspective, raw milk is never safe to drink because it is linked to many preventable foodborne illnesses.”

Raw milk enthusiasts maintain raw milk can be a low-risk food when farmers are trained in safe production methods and perform ongoing bacterial testing of their milk to ensure high standards.

What do we know about bird flu in milk?

The FDA said pasteurized milk remains safe for human consumption because the process kills harmful bacteria and viruses.

But when it comes to bird flu, the FDA has hedged, saying that it believes the pasteurization process is “very likely” to inactivate H5N1. The agency said they are working on studies on the impact of pasteurization specifically on H5N1 viruses in milk, calling it a “high priority.”

The FDA and the CDC are less certain about raw milk sold in many states, saying there’s limited information about the possible transmission of the H5N1 virus in such products.

So far, no herds linked to raw milk providers have reported cows infected with bird flu, but the agencies recommend that the industry not make or sell raw milk or raw milk cheese products made with milk from cows that show symptoms — or are exposed to infected cows.

What are some of the symptoms of illnesses that can be caused by consuming raw milk?

Symptoms of illness caused by consuming raw milk include: vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, headache, and body ache. Most healthy people will recover from illness caused by harmful bacteria in raw milk — or in foods made with raw milk — within a short period of time, however, the CDC says some people can develop symptoms that are chronic and severe including Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause paralysis, and hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can result in kidney failure, stroke, and even death.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found how an increase in the number of raw milk–associated outbreaks as more states have allowed the legal sale of raw milk. Drinking raw milk has caused 202 outbreaks that sickened more than 2,600 people and included 228 hospitalizations between 1998 and 2018.

Does raw milk have more enzymes and nutrients than pasteurized milk?

According to the CDC, multiple studies have shown that pasteurization does not significantly affect the nutritional quality of milk.

Scientists do not have any evidence that shows a nutritional benefit from drinking raw milk, according to the CDC.

If a farmer tests raw milk does that mean it’s safe?

Not necessarily. Negative laboratory tests to detect germs in raw milk do not guarantee that raw milk is safe to drink, according to the CDC. Tests do not always detect low levels of contamination. People have become very sick from drinking raw milk that came from farms that regularly tested their milk for bacteria, according to the CDC.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

In this Friday, April 15, 2016 photo, raw milk is for sale in Penobscot, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

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