Raw milk sales are spiking in the U.S. despite bird flu warnings

Click to play video: 'Avian flu: U.S. sees sales of raw milk jump amid outbreak, but what are the risks?'
Avian flu: U.S. sees sales of raw milk jump amid outbreak, but what are the risks?
WATCH - Avian flu: U.S. sees sales of raw milk jump amid outbreak, but what are the risks? – May 18, 2024

Amid a bird flu outbreak in the United States and official warnings to avoid raw milk due to the potential for contamination, an unexpected trend emerges: sales of unpasteurized products seem to be on the rise.

Since March 25, when the bird flu virus was confirmed in U.S. dairy cattle for the first time, weekly sales of raw cow’s milk have risen compared with the same periods a year ago, according to the Associated Press.

“Right now our sales are up, we can’t keep it in stock” Mark McAfee, owner of Raw Farm USA in Fresno, Calif., told Global News. “We’re in 550 stores right now and raw milk sales have never been higher and were sold out all the time.”

The sale of raw milk is legal in California and a handful of other states, and McAfee said sales have recently surged driven by a growing belief in its “natural immune system properties.”

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However, Jason Tetro, a microbiologist based in Edmonton and specialist in emerging pathogens, warned that raw milk does not have any specific helpful immune properties.

“Whether it is raw milk or pasteurized milk… at the end of the day, it’s coming from a cow. Human breast milk comes from humans, cow milk comes from cows. And while there may be some similarities in the antibody structure, it’s not going to help you out,” he explained.

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He added that he is not too shocked to see that people are buying more raw milk in the U.S. in the wake of the bird flu outbreak, as the public health community “always sees this whenever we have a problem with raw milk and some kind of pathogen.”

While raw milk sales are on the rise in the U.S., it’s a different story in Canada. Selling unpasteurized milk is illegal nationwide. In Canada, all milk must undergo pasteurization before it can be sold, according to Health Canada.

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Pasteurization is a process that uses heat to kill harmful microorganisms while retaining the nutritional properties of milk.

Raw milk is far more likely than pasteurized milk to cause illnesses and hospitalizations linked to dangerous bacteria such as campylobacter, listeria, salmonella and E. coli, Tetro said.

'The person could be infected'

The avian flu virus has been found in high levels in the raw milk of infected cows in the U.S. Viral remnants have also been found in samples of milk sold in grocery stores.

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But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said the grocery store milk is safe to consume because pasteurization can kill the virus, even if remnants are still found in testing.

It’s not yet known whether live virus can be transmitted to people who consume milk that hasn’t been heat-treated, the FDA said, and the question of bird flu’s potential to infect humans from animals has been a key concern as the virus spreads.

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Due to virus fragments found in unpasteurized dairy, on May 10, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cautioned against consuming raw milk or related products.

“The risk of human infection from drinking raw milk containing live A(H5N1) virus specifically is unknown. To date, A(H5N1) viruses have not acquired the ability to bind to virus receptors that are most prevalent in the upper respiratory tract of people,” the CDC wrote in a statement.

“If a person consumed raw milk with live A(H5N1) virus, the person could become infected, theoretically, by the virus binding to a limited amount of virus receptors in the upper respiratory tract or by aspiration of virus into the lower respiratory tract where receptors that A(H5N1) viruses can bind to are more widely distributed.”

Getting natural immunity?

Despite warnings from health officials, McAfee says there is a surge in raw milk purchases among his customers.

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He also mentioned that colleagues have reported customers inquiring about drinking raw milk containing the avian flu virus to gain immunity. However, McAfee emphasized that this is a very small group, and most people are not interested in doing so.

McAfee also noted that the virus has not been found in dairy cows in California. If it were, the affected cow would be isolated, and its milk destroyed, never sold for consumption.

Michael Gaenzle, a food microbiologist at the University of Alberta, cautioned against the idea of seeking immunity from bird flu by consuming milk infected with the virus, calling it a highly risky endeavour.

“If you’re worried about catching the bird flu virus, stay away from infected cattle herds,” he said.

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Tetro echoed these sentiments.

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When it comes to purposely drinking milk contaminated with bird flu, Tetro said you are dealing with a microbe you have no control over, essentially putting your health in the hands of something you can’t even see and it causing a lot of damage.

“And the actual levels of flu in the milk are so small that if you’re trying to vaccinate yourself or expose yourself to get natural immunity, it’s not going to work,” he added.

“When it comes to avian flu in raw milk. You don’t want to have to deal with that, because at the end of the day, it’s not the avian flu and it’s not the raw milk that’s the biggest threat. It’s the listeria, the salmonella, the e-coli, the enterococcus that’s also going to be in that milk,” he warned.

Raw milk in Canada

Although it’s illegal to sell unpasteurized milk in Canada, you can still drink it if you manage to get your hands on some.

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However, unlike highly regulated raw milk production facilities in the U.S., Gaenzle warned that any raw milk sold in Canada lacks rigorous precautions.

“There is a good reason why selling raw milk is banned in Canada. And the reason is unless the farmers take exceptional, exceptional precautions, which they don’t in Canada… raw milk is possibly or likely contaminated with one, of several pathogens,” he said.

“Unless you have absolute confidence and documentation that e.coli is not present in the dairy herd in which you get your milk, you should not even look at it,” he stressed.

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In an email to Global News, a Health Canada spokesperson warned of the dangers of consuming raw milk in Canada.

“Drinking raw or unpasteurized milk comes with an increased risk of serious illness because it has not been pasteurized to eliminate harmful microorganisms,” a Health Canada spokesperson told Global News in an email on Friday.

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“Microorganisms such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria have been found in raw and unpasteurized milk. These microorganisms can cause food poisoning and lead to very serious conditions such as fever, vomiting, diarrhea, life-threatening kidney failure, miscarriage and even death.”

— With files from the Associated Press

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