Bird Flu Found in Store-Bought Milk: Should You Be Worried?


In March 2024, 33 cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI or H5N1) were detected in dairy cattle. Then, late last month, consumers were warned that traces of bird flu may have found their way into our milk.1

But what’s really going on here? And should you be worried about you or your family contracting the bird flu from drinking milk?

Well, we’re here to tell you that you don’t need to reach for the oat milk just yet. There’s a simple, scientific explanation for these trace remnants of bird flu.

We’ll explain everything below, along with what bird flu is, how it’s found its way into cow milk, and what milk is safe to consume.

The Bottom Line: Don’t Worry Just Yet

First off, we want to make clear that, though there are some similarities, this is not a repeat of COVID-19. Not even close. So don’t throw out all your milk and start stocking up on toilet paper.

Though bird flu has been transmitted to various types of mammals in the US, Canada, and other locations around the world, human cases of bird flu are rare.

There have been only 1,000 cases of humans contracting the H5N1 virus in the last 30 years and only two cases of HPAI (one from poultry and one from dairy cattle) and four cases of low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) in the US.2,3

We are far from a human outbreak of bird flu, and despite recent reports of bird flu being found in our milk, it’s not yet a public health crisis.

However, that doesn’t mean bird flu isn’t dangerous.

What Is Bird Flu?

Bird flu—also known as highly pathogenic avian influenza, H5N1, or avian influenza—emerged in 1996 and was first identified in a goose in Southern China.4 This virus spread rapidly among poultry stocks and has since spread across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, eventually making its way to the Americas.5

In the last 30 years, in the US alone, hundreds of millions of poultry have either died of bird flu or as a result of culling to prevent further spread. The current outbreak in the US is the worst in history, with nearly 50 million birds lost, affecting 48 states and resulting in $2 to 3 billion in economic losses.6

And it’s not just poultry farms—bird flu also impacts wild populations of birds and has made the jump to wild mammals, other types of farm animals (such as pigs and dairy cows), and humans.7

How Does Bird Flu Infect Humans?

Bird flu can infect humans, it’s true. Warning ahead: if you get queasy at the thought of another viral outbreak, don’t read these statistics. They sound worse than it is in reality.

The first outbreak in Southern China infected 18 people and resulted in six deaths.

According to the CDC, since 2003, there have been more than 800 cases of human infections with bird flu in 23 countries. Over 400 were fatal. This means that bird flu has a 50+% fatality rate in humans.8

The majority of these cases were a result of farm workers coming into direct contact with infected birds or other animals, infected body fluids, and bird droppings.

Currently, the CDC deems bird flu a mild risk to the general population. However, they do warn that individuals who come into regular contact with wild birds or mammals or even backyard farming hobbyists should be careful since there are rare cases of people contracting bird flu in these situations. But what’s up with this report from the FDA that showed 1 in 5 grocery milk products contained bird flu?? Well, let’s get into it.9

Infographic mapping how bird flu contaminants infect humans.

How is Bird Flu Getting into Our Milk?

Though it’s called “bird flu,” at this point, we know it doesn’t only affect birds. Transmission from birds to mammals has been well-documented.

But how exactly are dairy cattle getting bird flu?

Here’s what (we think) might happen: bird flu is spread via wild birds infected with the avian influenza virus. These infected birds might come into contact with dairy cows that are hanging out in a field, and either through contact or the cow eating the bird (yes, even cows aren’t vegan), transmission can occur.

There is also evidence that if a dairy farm is near a poultry farm, infection can occur this way, too.

Curiously, though, if cows catch bird flu, it’s not as big of a deal for them as it is for birds. They will typically experience low appetite, reduced milk production, and abnormal appearance of milk (thickened or discolored).10

With treatment, most cows shake it off and recover, with very few dying. They can transmit the flu among their herd, though.

So, Is Milk Safe to Consume?

First of all, despite what it might sound like, “bird flu in milk” is not what it seems. It’s not the live virus swimmin’ around in there just waiting to infect unsuspecting milk drinkers.

Currently, the FDA and CDC agree that if milk has undergone pasteurization, there is little to no risk to consumers and a very strong likelihood that you are safe from the avian influenza virus.

In fact, pasteurization reduces the chances of transmitting any disease, not just bird flu, to less than .0001%. Those are some pretty good odds!

What they are detecting is the genetic traces of bird flu virus in our milk. So, yes, bird flu can be passed through milk, but with the proper pasteurization treatment, we aren’t consuming actual avian influenza.

As a result, the FDA says that “the commercial milk supply is safe,” and there is no evidence yet to the contrary.

So what’s the big deal that we’re finding the bird flu virus in milk?

Well, according to Dean Blumberg, the chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Health, the concern is for individuals consuming raw milk.1

Since we now know that the virus can pass into milk, it is not a wise idea to consume any raw milk or raw milk products as the bird flu outbreak continues to surge.

However, even if you removed the risk of bird flu, raw milk might be one of the most dangerous foods to consume due to the risk of foodborne illness from the plentiful amount of germs found in milk.11

So, maybe it would be best not to consume it at all.

What Are Farms Doing to Prevent Bird Flu?

The CDC is working closely with state and federal agencies, including the USDA, to mitigate the spread of avian influenza to protect consumers and also farmers’ livelihoods.

The mass culling of livestock has placed immense pressure on the agriculture industry. This may even be passed on to consumers with increased prices, which is the last thing we need with the continued rate of inflation in the US.

So, what are farmers supposed to do? We’ve got one word for you: biosecurity.

Sounds cool, right? Well, when it comes to farming, biosecurity is essentially protecting livestock from contact with infected wild birds and waterfowl.

Bird flu spreads very rapidly among poultry, so even one infected animal can contaminate an entire flock.

There are three main ways to prevent wildlife contact:12

  1. Reduce wildlife attractants by removing or covering standing water, removing food sources, and covering waste.
  2. Prevent wildlife access by repairing holes in building structures and removing perches.
  3. Add wildlife deterrents such as decoys, scare devices, or even pyrotechnics.

Farmers and farm workers also practice continued surveillance of livestock for disease control, looking for dead or sick animals and removing them from the flock as quickly as possible.

However, bird flu can be spread easily and in a number of ways, including through manure. This makes it very difficult to prevent once the virus has found its way into livestock.

Farm workers may even inadvertently transfer it from flock to flock on their shoes, from crates, clothes, hands, and even vehicles and tires.

To avoid contamination, this means workers must disinfect everything, including equipment or tools that may come in contact with them, and wear disposable shoe covers and coveralls.13

What To Do If You Contract Bird Flu

Though human cases are incredibly rare, it may be worth learning what some of the symptoms of bird flu are and what to do if you suspect you’ve been infected. Hint: don’t just sleep it off!

Symptoms of Bird Flu

Symptoms of bird flu in humans are very similar to most flu viruses. However, since the mortality rate is much higher than the flu or even COVID-19, symptoms should definitely not be ignored, especially if individuals work around livestock, particularly poultry.14

Bird flu symptoms range widely from no symptoms, mild illness, to severe illness:

  • eye redness (conjunctivitis)
  • fever (temperature of 100ºF [37.8ºC] or greater)
  • feeling feverish (if no fever is present)
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • body aches
  • headaches
  • fatigue
  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

Less common symptoms can include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, or seizures.

Report Your Illness to a Medical Professional

If you suspect you have avian influenza, avoid contact with other individuals and head to the nearest emergency room as soon as symptoms present.

The medical professionals there will follow guidance from the CDC for proper testing and treatment.15

Testing may involve a nasal or throat swab, and the collected specimens may need to be sent to a State Public Health Laboratory. The CDC will then be notified if there is avian influenza detected.

Treatments for Bird Flu

Since this virus is not all that common in humans, there aren’t yet any results from clinical trials to determine the best methods for treatment.

Currently, the CDC recommends that if a patient is suspected to have bird flu, medical professionals may administer antiviral medications right away, especially if symptoms have just started.16

Again, since it’s not a prolific virus, there is not yet a widely distributed bird flu vaccine. However, should the need arise, the US government should be able to deliver vaccines since they are currently in development.

  1. Howard, L. (2024, April 25). 1 in 5 milk samples from grocery stores test positive for bird flu. Why the FDA says it’s still safe to drink. News.
  2. CDC Newsroom. (2016, January 1). CDC.
  3. Current bird flu situation in wild birds. (2022, March 11). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  4. Emergence and evolution of H5N1 bird flu | Avian Influenza (FLU). (n.d.).
  5. Highlights in the history of Avian influenza (Bird flu) timeline – 2010-2019 | Avian Influenza (FLU). (n.d.).
  6. VIER PFOTEN International – gemeinnützige Privatstiftung. (n.d.). Billion dollar cost of the global bird flu outbreak. FOUR PAWS International – Animal Welfare Organisation.
  7. Detections of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in Mammals. (2024, May 7). USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
  8. Past Reported Global Human Cases with Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza A(H5N1) (HPAI H5N1) by Country, 1997-2024  | Avian Influenza (Flu). (n.d.).
  9. Nutrition, C. F. F. S. a. A. (2024, May 1). Updates on Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). U.S. Food And Drug Administration.
  10. Avian influenza virus type A (H5N1) in U.S. dairy cattle. (n.d.). American Veterinary Medical Association.
  11. Raw Milk questions and answers. (2023, November 1). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  12. Prevent avian influenza at your farm: Improve your biosecurity with Simple with Simple wildlife management practices. (2015, July). USDA.
  13. Protect your poultry from avian influenza. (2022, February). USDA.
  14. Avian influenza A virus infections in humans. (2024, April 11). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  15. Interim Guidance on Testing and Specimen Collection for Patients with Suspected Infection with Novel Influenza A Viruses with the Potential to Cause Severe Disease in Humans  | Avian Influenza (Flu). (n.d.).
  16. Prevention and antiviral treatment of bird flu viruses in people | Avian Influenza (FLU). (n.d.).

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