Can You Catch Bird Flu From Milk, Beef, or Eggs?

Can You Catch Bird Flu From Milk, Beef, or Eggs?

The bird flu outbreak continues to expand to more farm animals, raising concerns about the safety of consuming animal products like milk and eggs. 

Bird flu, also called avian influenza, is caused by subtypes of the influenza A virus. There are many subtypes, but the strain involved in the most recent outbreak is the highly pathogenic H5N1.

Bird flu spreads naturally among wild birds, such as ducks and geese, but can also affect domestic birds and other animals. In the United States, the strain has infected over 90 million chickens. It has also spread to 36 dairy herds in nine states.

Fortunately, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it hasn’t found any live, infectious virus in commercial foods. However, it has detected virus fragments in pasteurized milk, sour cream, and cottage cheese. 

While federal authorities stress that the chance of someone contracting bird flu via food products is low, specific choices, such as opting for unpasteurized milk, may raise that risk. 

Here’s what infectious disease and food safety experts had to say about whether it’s possible to get bird flu from consuming poultry, beef, eggs, milk, and other dairy products. 

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Humans can contract the bird flu, but it’s rare, according to S. Wesley Long, MD, PhD, the medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist. 

“It does not transmit well between people and typically requires close contact with infected animals,” he told Health

According to experts, people can contract the disease by breathing in viral particles or when the virus gets into their eyes, nose, or mouth after touching an infected animal or surface.

Worldwide, fewer than a thousand known cases of H5N1 flu have been recorded since 1997, when the disease was first discovered in humans. In the U.S. only a handful of people have contracted bird flu. 

Most recently, a farmworker became infected with H5N1 in April after exposure to dairy cattle in Texas. In 2022, another person contracted H5N1 in Colorado after working on a poultry farm. Other U.S. cases involved less virulent strains.

Symptoms could range from mild, such as an eye infection, to more severe, like fatal pneumonia.

Experts say it’s highly unlikely that someone would contract bird flu by eating contaminated food. 

The current position is that H5N1 “is not a food safety concern, and the risk of its transmission to humans remains low,” Elaine Vanier, DVM, the animal welfare and animal feed program lead at NSF International, told Health.

Long said the food industry has safeguards to ensure that poultry infected with the bird flu are not sold on the market. 

“Because it is so contagious and commercially devastating for commercial poultry when an infected bird is detected, entire flocks have to be destroyed,” Long said. “This poultry is not sold.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has also mandated that dairy cows test negative for Influenza A at an accredited laboratory before being shipped across state lines. 

Even if the virus did make its way into your eggs or beef, Long said that “normal cooking temperature,” or heating the foods to at least 165 degrees, “would destroy the virus as well as disease-causing bacteria that are far more common, like Salmonella.”

Despite finding dead particles of noninfectious influenza virus fragments in commercial pasteurized milk, sour cream, and cottage cheese, the FDA has reassured the public that the milk supply is safe. 

Webby said there’s no reason to believe that there’s any live virus in milk that’s been pasteurized, which means it’s undergone a heating process to kill potential pathogens. 

“The data that has been generated to date shows that the virus, luckily, does not survive pasteurization,” Webby said. “We have tested pasteurized milk and have not found any live virus. So pasteurized milk is safe.“

However, experts advise against drinking unpasteurized milk, also called raw milk, as well as products containing it. 

“Consuming raw unpasteurized milk in the U.S. right now is definitely risky,” Webby said. “We know there is H5 virus in the milk of infected cows.” 

In addition to avoiding unpasteurized milk and thoroughly cooking meat, chicken, and eggs, Nathaniel Tablante, DVM, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Maryland, advises taking precautions that would help prevent the spread of any pathogen. 

That includes proper storage and handling of food products from animals, as well as “washing hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds,” he told Health.  

It’s also important to stay up to date on the latest bird flu developments by checking the websites of reliable sources, such as the CDC, FDA, and USDA

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