There’s Bird Flu in US Dairy Cows. Raw Milk Drinkers Aren’t Deterred

As of Monday, at least 42 herds in nine states are known to have cows infected with the virus known as type A H5N1, federal officials said - The AP
As of Monday, at least 42 herds in nine states are known to have cows infected with the virus known as type A H5N1, federal officials said - The AP
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There’s Bird Flu in US Dairy Cows. Raw Milk Drinkers Aren’t Deterred

As of Monday, at least 42 herds in nine states are known to have cows infected with the virus known as type A H5N1, federal officials said - The AP
As of Monday, at least 42 herds in nine states are known to have cows infected with the virus known as type A H5N1, federal officials said - The AP

Sales of raw milk appear to be on the rise, despite years of warnings about the health risks of drinking the unpasteurized products — and an outbreak of bird flu in dairy cows.

Since March 25, when the bird flu virus was confirmed in US cattle for the first time, weekly sales of raw cow’s milk have ticked up 21% to as much as 65% compared with the same periods a year ago, according to the market research firm NielsenIQ.

That runs counter to advice from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which calls raw milk one of the “riskiest” foods people can consume.

“Raw milk can be contaminated with harmful germs that can make you very sick,” the CDC says on its website.

As of Monday, at least 42 herds in nine states are known to have cows infected with the virus known as type A H5N1, federal officials said, according to The AP.

The virus has been found in high levels in the raw milk of infected cows. Viral remnants have been found in samples of milk sold in grocery stores, but the FDA said those products are safe to consume because pasteurization has been confirmed to kill the virus.

It’s not yet known whether live virus can be transmitted to people who consume milk that hasn't been heat-treated.

But CDC officials warned last week that people who drink raw milk could theoretically become infected if the bird flu virus comes in contact with receptors in the nose, mouth and throat or by inhaling virus into the lungs. There's also concern that if more people are exposed to the virus, it could mutate to spread more easily in people.

States have widely varying regulations regarding raw milk, with some allowing retail sales in stores and others allowing sale only at farms. Some states allow so-called cowshares, where people pay for milk from designated animals, and some allow consumption only by farm owners, employees or “non-paying guests.”

The NielsenIQ figures include grocery stores and other retail outlets. They show that raw milk products account for a small fraction of overall dairy sales. About 4,100 units of raw cow's milk and about 43,000 units of raw milk cheese were sold the week of May 5, for instance, according to NielsenIQ. That compares with about 66.5 million units of pasteurized cow's milk and about 62 million units of pasteurized cheese.

Still, testimonies to raw milk are trending on social media sites. And Mark McAfee, owner of Raw Farm USA in Fresno, California, says he can’t keep his unpasteurized products in stock.

“People are seeking raw milk like crazy,” he said, noting that no bird flu has been detected in his herds or in California. “Anything that the FDA tells our customers to do, they do the opposite.”

The surge surprises Donald Schaffner, a Rutgers University food science professor who called the trend “absolutely stunning.”

“Food safety experts like me are just simply left shaking their heads,” he said.

From 1998 to 2018, the CDC documented more than 200 illness outbreaks traced to raw milk, which sickened more than 2,600 people and hospitalized more than 225.

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, research shows.

Before milk standards were adopted in 1924, about 25% of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. were related to dairy consumption, said Alex O’Brien, safety and quality coordinator for the Center for Dairy Research. Now, dairy products account for about 1% of such illnesses, he said.

“I liken drinking raw milk to playing Russian roulette,” O’Brien said. The more times people consume it, the greater the chance they’ll get sick, he added.

Despite the risks, about 4.4% of U.S. adults — nearly 11 million people — report that they drink raw milk at least once each year, and about 1% say they consume it each week, according to a 2022 FDA study.

Bonni Gilley, 75, of Fresno, said she has raised generations of her family on raw milk and unpasteurized cream and butter because she believes “it’s so healthy" and lacks additives.

Reports of bird flu in dairy cattle have not made her think twice about drinking raw milk, Gilley said.

“If anything, it is accelerating my thoughts about raw milk,” she said, partly because she doesn’t trust government officials.

Such views are part of a larger problem of government mistrust and a rejection of expertise, said Matthew Motta, who studies health misinformation at Boston University.

“It not that people are stupid or ignorant or that they don’t know what the science is,” he said. “They’re motivated to reject it on the basis of partisanship, their political ideology, their religion, their cultural values.”

CDC and FDA officials didn’t respond to questions about the rising popularity of raw milk.

Motta suggested that the agencies should push back with social media posts extolling the health effects of pasteurized milk.

“Communicators need to make an effort to understand why people consume raw milk and try to meet them where they are,” he said.



Hollywood Movies Rarely Reflect Climate Change Crisis. These Researchers Want to Change That

This image released by Netflix shows Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy and Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky in a scene from "Don't Look Up." (Niko Tavernise/Netflix via AP)
This image released by Netflix shows Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy and Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky in a scene from "Don't Look Up." (Niko Tavernise/Netflix via AP)
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Hollywood Movies Rarely Reflect Climate Change Crisis. These Researchers Want to Change That

This image released by Netflix shows Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy and Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky in a scene from "Don't Look Up." (Niko Tavernise/Netflix via AP)
This image released by Netflix shows Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy and Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky in a scene from "Don't Look Up." (Niko Tavernise/Netflix via AP)

Aquaman might not mind if the oceans rise, but moviegoers might.

That's one of the takeaways from a new study conducted by researchers who set out to determine if today's Hollywood blockbusters are reflective of the current climate crisis. The vast majority of movies failed the “climate reality check” proposed by the authors, who surveyed 250 movies from 2013 to 2022.

The test is simple — the authors looked to see if a movie presented a story in which climate change exists, and whether a character knows it does. One film that passed the test was the 2017 superhero movie Justice League, in which Jason Momoa's Aquaman character says, “Hey, I don't mind if the oceans rise” to Ben Affleck's Bruce Wayne, The AP reported.

But most movies fell short — fewer than 10% of the 250 films passed, and climate change was mentioned in two or more scenes of fewer than 4% of the films. That's out of touch with a moviegoing public that wants “to see their reality reflected on screen,” said Colby College English professor Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, lead researcher on the study.

“The top line is just that the vast majority of films, popular films produced over the last 10 years in the United States, are not portraying the world as it is,” Schneider-Mayerson said. “They are portraying a world that is now history or fantasy — a world in which climate change is not happening.”

Researchers at Maine's Colby College published the study in April along with Good Energy, a Los Angeles-based environmental consultancy. The results were peer reviewed, and the authors are seeking publication in scientific journals. The researchers view the test as a way for audience members, writers and filmmakers to evaluate the representation of climate change on screen.

Some results were surprising. Movies that at first glance appear to have little overlap with climate or the environment passed the test. Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach's emotive 2019 drama about the collapse of a relationship, passed the test in part because Adam Driver's character is described as “energy conscious,” Schneider-Mayerson said.

The 2022 whodunnit Glass Onion and the 2019 folk horror movie Midsommar were others to pass the test. Some that were more explicitly about climate change, such as the 2021 satire Don't Look Up, also passed. But San Andreas, a 2015 movie about a West Coast earthquake disaster, and The Meg, a 2018 action movie set in the ocean, did not.

The authors narrowed the selection of movies by excluding films not set on Earth or set before 2006 or after 2100. They found streaming services had a higher percentage of movies that included climate change than the major studios did.

The study is “valuable for marketing purposes, informational purposes, data accumulation,” said Harry Winer, director of sustainability at the Kanbar Institute of Film and Television at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. Winer, who was not involved in the study, said it could also help serve as an incentive to connect audiences with climate stories.

“The audience will be more open to hearing a dialogue about what is right and what is wrong,” Winer said. “It's a conversation starter.”

The study authors said they see the climate reality check as a kind of Bechdel-Wallace test for climate change. Alison Bechdel, a cartoonist, is credited with popularizing that test in the 1980s by incorporating her friend Liz Wallace's test about gender representation in film into a comic strip. The test asks if a movie includes at least two female characters who have a conversation about something other than a man.

Bechdel herself spoke highly of the study's climate test, which she described as “long overdue” in a social media post during this year's Academy Awards season. Bechdel said in an e-mail to The AP that “for a movie set in the present to ignore this existential threat just doesn't make sense anymore" in the age of climate change.

“I do worry that screenwriters might do it in a kind of rote way, which could be counterproductive, just like rote ‘strong female characters’ are," Bechdel said. "But injecting an awareness of our communal plight into the stories we ingest seems like a no-brainer.”