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A bird flu outbreak among dairy cows sparks new warnings about unpasteurized milk

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The bird flu outbreak continues to spread among cows. The virus has now been found in almost 50 dairy herds across nine states. Health officials say milk that is pasteurized to kill germs is safe to drink, but the Food and Drug Administration has renewed warnings against raw milk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD PRATER: We continue to strongly advise against the consumption of raw milk and recommend that industry does not manufacture or sell raw milk or raw milk products.

CHANG: Now, unpasteurized - or raw - milk is still being sold in many states. And advocates for raw milk say the federal government has always opposed its consumption, so why should they listen now? Well, here to talk more about this whole situation are NPR's Pien Huang and Chiara Eisner. Hey to both of you.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHIARA EISNER, BYLINE: Hey.

CHANG: Hey. So Chiara, I want to start with you 'cause you went to Texas last week. And you were here on this mission to find raw milk and test it for this virus. What did you find?

EISNER: I found it was quite easy to purchase in Texas. It's legal there, and all I had to do was drive up to these farms and purchase the milk directly from them. In some cases, there was a store attendant who I paid the money to. In other cases, there wasn't even anybody there. I just opened the door to the fridge, grabbed the milk, left cash in a drop box and came out. In one of those farms in San Antonio, I met another woman who was buying milk. Her name was Cheryl Masraum. And she said she's been drinking raw milk on and off for the past 15 to 20 years.

CHERYL MASRAUM: Because I think that raw milk is typically a much better quality. Right now, we're just kind of watching the situation and, you know - (laughter).

EISNER: That was in Texas, which was ground zero for this outbreak of bird flu in cows. As far as scientists can tell, that's where bird flu jumped to cows last December and kicked off this whole outbreak.

CHANG: Wait, so can people get bird flu from drinking raw milk, Pien? Like, what do we know about the risks?

HUANG: Well, it's all theoretical, and the answer is maybe. But honestly, health officials just don't know. So Don Prater from the FDA, we heard from him in the intro. He's very clear that the agency doesn't recommend drinking raw milk, but he also says that there are a lot of open questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRATER: There's not a tremendous amount of studies showing the infectivity related to this virus and raw milk products.

HUANG: The one person who's for sure gotten bird flu so far was a dairy worker in Texas, and he was dealing with sick cows. He probably got exposed to sprays of infected milk and manure. As far as health authorities can tell, no one has gotten bird flu from drinking raw milk yet. So what they're leaning on in their recommendation is the fact that people have gotten sick from other things in raw milk, like salmonella and E. coli, and that's why they don't think people should drink it.

CHANG: And are people who drink raw milk actually taking this advice?

HUANG: It doesn't seem like it, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK.

HUANG: We reached out to a few raw milk groups, and they say that their customers have been asking a lot of questions, but demand seems to be holding steady.

CHANG: How popular is raw milk anyway? Like, I don't think I have ever tasted it.

HUANG: Yeah, well, there's not actually a lot of raw milk drinkers, less than 2% of the adult population in the U.S., according to an FDA study from a couple of years ago. But the ones who do drink it are very passionate about it and they usually fall into two camps. So there's the original raw milk supporters who've been around for decades. They've long wanted access to local healthy food. And more recently, the raw milk movement has picked up people that want less government regulation, food freedom.

So people who've watched this industry for a long time say that this food freedom was boosted by COVID when distrust of the government and government scientists really grew. I spoke with Mark McAfee, a raw milk dairy farmer in California. He's founded the Raw Milk Institute, which is an advocacy group. And he says that his customers just don't trust the FDA.

MARK MCAFEE: The FDA hates raw milk? Fine. The FDA will take any excuse to blast us any way they can. The people that follow us and work with us, if the FDA says it's bad, they'll run for it. They want it so badly.

HUANG: McAfee says that he tested his cows for H5N1 when he first heard about the outbreak, and they didn't have it. This was about a month and a half or two months ago. But that is just one point in time and just one farm.

CHANG: Well, what about testing? I mean, it sounds like there's all this fear. And people are saying, no, that's just speculation. But it seems like knowing whether there is actually the virus inside the raw milk supply would help clear this up. So Chiara, what do we know about testing?

EISNER: You're right, Ailsa, it would really help to know if and how much virus is out there in the raw milk supply being sold now to people. But testing doesn't seem to be happening regularly, and that data is really hard to come by. That's why we tried to find our own. But when I brought raw milk that I bought from those four Texas farms to one of the few labs authorized by the USDA to test milk for bird flu, the lab insisted on calling each of the four farms first for permission, though the USDA has confirmed the agency doesn't require permission from farms to perform the test.

None of the farms gave the lab permission to run the tests. They told the lab they were aware of what a non-negative result would do for their business. So the lab refused to test our samples. That means we weren't able to find out how much virus was in the raw milk being sold now in Texas, and probably it's very difficult for other members of the public to do that, too.

CHANG: OK, so we don't know how much of this virus is present in the current raw milk supply. So I guess my question now is, how should we be evaluating the risks here, Pien?

HUANG: Yeah, Ailsa, I mean, like you said, we're not sure if there's live bird flu virus in the raw milk supply, but we also don't know that there's not, unless we test for it or...

CHANG: Right.

HUANG: ...Unless we inactivate it by pasteurizing it. We also don't know if drinking milk with the virus is an easy way for people to get infected. And there are other worries.

CHANG: Like what, Chiara?

EISNER: So the worry is that if influenza viruses from two different species, like a human and a bird species, infect one person at the same time, a new kind of virus could be created that would be more contagious in people. That could lead to a pandemic. The more animals the flu spreads to and the more people it spreads to, the greater the chances that that could happen. That's why even though the official assessment is that the risk to the public is low, federal health officials are urging people to be cautious and not drink raw milk.

CHANG: That is NPR's Chiara Eisner and Pien Huang. Thank you to both of you.

HUANG: Thank you, Ailsa.

EISNER: Thanks, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAYTRANADA, KARRIEM RIGGINS AND RIVER TIBER'S "BUS RIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.
Chiara Eisner
Chiara Eisner is a reporter for NPR's investigations team. Eisner came to NPR from The State in South Carolina, where her investigative reporting on the experiences of former execution workers received McClatchy's President's Award and her coverage of the biomedical horseshoe crab industry led to significant restrictions of the harvest.