With all this bird flu around, how safe are eggs, chicken or milk

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Recent outbreaks of bird flu—in US dairy herds, poultry farms in Australia and elsewhere, and isolated cases in humans—have raised the issue of food safety.

So can the virus transfer from infected farm animals to contaminate milk, meat or eggs? How likely is this?

And what do we need to think about to minimize our risk when shopping for or preparing food?

How safe is milk?

Bird flu (or avian influenza) is a bird disease caused by specific types of influenza virus. But the virus can also infect cows. In the US, for instance, to date more than 80 dairy herds in at least nine states have been infected with the H5N1 version of the virus.

Investigations are under way to confirm how this happened. But we do know infected birds can shed the virus in their saliva, nasal secretions and feces. So bird flu can potentially contaminate animal-derived food products during processing and manufacturing.

Indeed, fragments of bird flu genetic material (RNA) were found in cow’s milk from the dairy herds associated with infected US farmers.

However, the spread of bird flu among cattle, and possibly to humans, is likely to have been caused through contact with contaminated milking equipment, not the milk itself.

The test used to detect the virus in milk—which uses similar PCR technology to lab-based COVID tests—is also highly sensitive. This means it can detect very low levels of the bird flu RNA. But the test does not distinguish between live or inactivated virus, just that the RNA is present. So from this test alone, we cannot tell if the virus found in milk is infectious (and capable of infecting humans).

Does that mean milk is safe to drink and won’t transmit bird flu? Yes and no.

In Australia, where bird flu has not been reported in dairy cattle, the answer is yes. It is safe to drink milk and milk products made from Australian milk.

In the US, the answer depends on whether the milk is pasteurized. We know pasteurization is a common and reliable method of destroying concerning microbes, including influenza virus. Like most viruses, influenza virus (including bird flu virus) is inactivated by heat.

Although there is little direct research on whether pasteurization inactivates H5N1 in milk, we can extrapolate from what we know about heat inactivation of H5N1 in chicken and eggs.

So we can be confident there is no risk of bird flu transmission via pasteurized milk or milk products.

However, it’s another matter for unpasteurised or “raw” US milk or milk products. A recent study showed mice fed raw milk contaminated with bird flu developed signs of illness. So to be on the safe side, it would be advisable to avoid raw milk products.

If you care about nutrition, please read studies about the best time to take vitamins to prevent heart disease, and vitamin D supplements strongly reduce cancer death.

For more information about nutrition, please see recent studies about plant nutrient that could help reduce high blood pressure, and these antioxidants could help reduce dementia risk.

Written by Enzo Palombo, The Conversation.