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Bird Flu Could Be A Bigger Threat In Texas Thanks To Raw Milk

The nation is experiencing an outbreak of H5N1 avian flu across the cattle herds of the country. Leaders like Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller say the danger is minimal. Some experts say otherwise, and there are factors that may not be widely considered.

“There is no danger to the public,” Miller tweeted in March. “Protecting this $50 billion industry is essential to our ranchers and our economy. We are moving aggressively to address this outbreak.”

Bird flu has shown up in 33 herds across eight states. So far, only one human has been confirmed to have the latest strain. A Texas man contracted it from contact with infected dairy cows shortly after Miller’s tweet. It is only the second case of avian flu jumping from cattle to humans in U.S. history, which could be a sign Miller is right.

However, the USDA has confirmed that there has been cross infection between cattle and chickens through an unknown route. New York Times columnist and professor of sociology Zeynep Tufekci worries that the “unknown route” could be us.

“One thing that travels back and forth between cattle farms and chicken farms is human beings,” she writes. “They can also travel from cattle farms to pig farms, and pigs are the doomsday animals for human influenza pandemics. Because they are especially susceptible to both avian and human flu, they make for good petri dishes in which avian influenza can become an effective human virus. The damage could be vast.”

Tufekci called several experts, from the USDA to Miller, and found that the testing mechanisms for this outbreak are minimal at best. Whether from state or federal authorities, regulators seem reluctant to impact the cattle industry. Thus far, this has not resulted in an outbreak, but it’s not as safe as it could be.

For the virus to jump to the human population is relatively remote. In most cases, direct contact with the animal is required. Simply eating beef or drinking milk from an infected cow won’t do it. All authorities currently agree that the milk supply is safe thanks to testing and pasteurization.

However, not everyone in Texas pasteurizes their milk. The state has a robust raw milk community that eschews pasteurization in pursuit of non-existent health benefits. Pasteurization kills the virus, but not in raw milk.

The virus has already shown up in “very high concentrations” in raw milk. Experts are unclear how long the virus can survive in the milk and whether it is still infectious to humans at this stage. Texas law requires strict testing from raw milk dairies, but only for bacteria, not viruses.

The danger is that the virus in the milk is still viable enough to enter and adapt to survival in someone who drinks it. Once that person is infected with an adapted virus, the odds of it spreading to other people grow exponentially.

At this stage, a pandemic from H5N1 is still a remote possibility, but not an impossible one. State and federal authorities are not testing at the rate necessary to capture an infection among humans before it spreads, and the milk supply is only as safe if it is pasteurized.

Jef Rouner
Jef Rouner
Jef Rouner is an award-winning freelance journalist, the author of The Rook Circle, and a member of The Black Math Experiment. He lives in Houston where he spends most of his time investigating corruption and strange happenings. Jef has written for Houston Press, Free Press Houston, and Houston Chronicle.

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