Pasteurization May Not Kill Bird Flu in Milk: Experts

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Agencies say pasteurization kills viruses, but the FDA declined to say if testing related to the current strain has been performed.

Milk in circulation in the United States may contain avian influenza, or bird flu, according to some experts.

“There could be viruses in the milk on grocery shelves right now,” Gail Hansen, a veterinary expert who was formerly the state public health veterinarian for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, wrote in a recent op-ed.

The highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) A, or H5N1, recently started sickening cows, and one person, in multiple states.

Samples of unpasteurized milk from sick cattle tested positive for the virus, according to federal authorities. However, they have repeatedly said that no contaminated milk has or will enter the market.

“Dairies are required to send only milk from healthy animals into processing for human consumption; milk from impacted animals is being diverted or destroyed so that it does not enter the food supply. In addition, pasteurization has continually proven to inactivate bacteria and viruses, like influenza, in milk. Pasteurization is required for any milk entering interstate commerce,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture said when it announced the first cases among cows. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) offered a similar view.

Some other officials have acknowledged that milk from sick cows could enter the food chain but also said that milk would be safe due to pasteurization.

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Ms. Hansen, a doctor of veterinary medicine, and Andrew deCoriolis, executive director of the group Farm Forward, said that the statements on pasteurization are unsupported, noting that dairy farmers pasteurize in some cases for as short as 15 seconds.

“But those standards were designed to kill known bacteria, and it can take much longer to kill viruses. Research into coronaviruses found that it took 3 minutes at temperatures above 160 degrees Fahrenheit to kill the virus on surfaces,” they wrote, pointing to a study published by Reviews in Medical Virology. “It’s not safe to assume pasteurized milk is safe from H5N1 and again, there is no mention by either the USDA or FDA that they are testing it to find out.”

While the USDA also said farms are required to divert or destroy milk from sick cows, “it appears that the USDA is expecting farms to comply with this voluntarily, with no additional inspections or oversight,” Ms. Hansen and Mr. deCoriolis added. “Dairy farmers have every economic incentive to ignore this advice as long as the milk appears normal. According to reports, farmers only tested milk for [the] virus because they noticed the milk looked ’thick and syrupy.’ The USDA makes no mention of any plan to screen milk from infected herds to see if milk that looks normal may also carry the virus. There is no mention of USDA requiring infected herds to quarantine.”

The USDA referred a request for comment to the FDA.

An FDA spokesperson told The Epoch Times that “based on the information we currently have, our commercial milk supply is safe because of both the pasteurization process and that milk from sick cows is being diverted or destroyed.”

“The FDA is continuing to work with federal partners to further assess and study the current strain of HPAI virus that has been detected among dairy cows in a limited number of states and will provide updates as more information becomes available,” the spokesperson said.

The FDA declined to say whether it has done any testing on milk since cows started becoming sick.

Rick Bright, PhD., who directed the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority for several years and advised President Joe Biden on COVID-19, said that authorities should make public the results of such testing.

“Should be simple enough to prove and share data,” Mr. Bright wrote on social media after a user noted federal officials have not provided evidence backing their statements on pasteurization and HPAI.

“I can’t find prior data on influenza inactivation in milk (hasn’t been [an] issue until now),” Mr. Bright added. “This would be one of the high-priority experiments for @USDA to demonstrate, given outbreaks have spanned multiple weeks. Expecting data soon.”

Some experts have said pasteurization will kill HPAI.

“Pasteurization was initially developed to inactivate the bacteria that causes brucellosis and tuberculosis in people and was a serious public health problem many years ago,” Jim Watson, state veterinarian with the Mississippi Board of Animal Health, said. “The HPAI virus is much more sensitive to heat than either of those two bacteria.”

But others have acknowledged there is a risk, even if it’s not high.

“If you buy pasteurized milk from a commercial dairy processor, the risk is extremely low,” Meghan Davis, who has a Ph.D. and is a doctor of veterinary medicine, said.
Pasteurization does not sterilize milk, according to Penn State Extension. In addition, it says, there are concerns with standard pasteurization involving large batches because “some bacteria may become heat resistant, surviving the pasteurization process.”
The FDA says on its website that “it is not practical to target viral pathogens in cooking or pasteurization processes because of their extreme heat resistance.” It says pathogens “should be controlled through a rigorous sanitation regime.”

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