Amid growing concerns about food safety, the recent bird flu outbreak in U.S. dairy cattle has raised questions about the safety of consuming milk. With multiple agencies confirming the spread of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) to dairy cows, consumers are understandably worried about the implications for the milk supply and the potential risks associated with consuming dairy products.

The H5N1 influenza strain, first detected in 1996 in China, has been spreading rapidly since 2021, killing hundreds of millions of domestic and wild birds worldwide. It has also occasionally infected mammals, including seals and bears, which have become "accidental hosts" of the virus. In the past two weeks, health officials have detected H5N1 in cows from 16 herds across six states, a number likely to increase as US surveillance is stepped up. The more mammalian species the virus infects, the more opportunities it has to evolve as a dangerous strain to humans. One dairy worker in Texas has been infected, but the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the person is recovering. The worker's variant has a mutation linked to more efficient spread in mammals, which has appeared in foxes and cats infected with H5N1. The virus's potential for spreading to humans is significant, and it has the potential to evolve into a dangerous strain.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, and Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have urged all consumers to only consume pasteurized dairy products to protect themselves from any potential risks associated with the bird flu outbreak in cows. Pasteurization, a process that involves heating milk to kill harmful bacteria and pathogens, is an effective way to ensure the safety of dairy products and to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. While the discovery of bird flu in dairy cattle is concerning, experts say that the risk of the virus spreading to humans through milk consumption is very low. 

The virus is primarily spread through contact with infected birds or their droppings, and there is limited evidence to suggest that it can be transmitted through milk from infected cows. Additionally, pasteurization effectively destroys the virus, making it unlikely that consuming pasteurized milk would pose a significant risk to human health. Consumers should always take precautions when handling and consuming dairy products, especially during times of heightened concern like the current bird flu outbreak. It is important to follow proper food safety practices, such as washing hands thoroughly before and after handling dairy products, storing milk in the refrigerator at the appropriate temperature, and consuming dairy products before their expiration date.

While there have been reports of avian flu spreading to people, health experts have stated that these occurrences are rare. "Initial testing by the National Veterinary Services Laboratories has not found changes to the virus that would make it more transmissible to humans, which would indicate that the current risk to the public remains low," states the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and also that, "Federal and State agencies are moving quickly to conduct additional testing for HPAI, as well as viral genome sequencing, so that they can better understand the situation, including characterization of the HPAI strain or strains associated with these detections."

In conclusion, while the recent outbreak of bird flu in U.S. dairy cattle is a cause for concern, consumers can rest assured that it is still safe to consume pasteurized milk. By following proper food safety practices and staying informed about the situation, consumers can continue to enjoy the nutritional benefits of dairy products without putting their health at risk.