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.



Perfectly Preserved Centuries-Old Cherries Unearthed at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

18th century artifacts found underneath George Washington's residence in Mount Vernon, Va., Monday, June 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Nathan Ellgren)
18th century artifacts found underneath George Washington's residence in Mount Vernon, Va., Monday, June 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Nathan Ellgren)
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Perfectly Preserved Centuries-Old Cherries Unearthed at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

18th century artifacts found underneath George Washington's residence in Mount Vernon, Va., Monday, June 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Nathan Ellgren)
18th century artifacts found underneath George Washington's residence in Mount Vernon, Va., Monday, June 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Nathan Ellgren)

George Washington never did cut down the cherry tree, despite the famous story to the contrary, but he did pack away quite a few bottles of the fruit at his Mount Vernon home.

Dozens of bottles of cherries and berries — impossibly preserved in storage pits uncovered from the cellar of his mansion on the banks of the Potomac River — were discovered during an archaeological dig connected to a restoration project.

Jason Boroughs, Mount Vernon's principal archaeologist, said the discovery of so much perfectly preserved food from more than 250 years ago is essentially unprecedented.

"Finding what is essentially fresh fruit, 250 years later, is pretty spectacular," Boroughs said in an interview. "All the stars sort of have to align in the right manner for that to happen."

Whole pieces of fruit, recognizable as cherries, were found in some of the bottles. Other bottles held what appear to be gooseberries or currants, though testing is underway to confirm that.

Mount Vernon is partnering with the US Department of Agriculture, which is conducting DNA testing on the fruit. They are also examining more than 50 cherry pits recovered from the bottles to see if any of them can be planted.

"It's kind of a longshot," said Benjamin Gutierrez, a USDA plant geneticist, of the chances of using a cherry pit to grow a tree. Seeds preserve best when they are dry, and most of the samples found at Mount Vernon were waterlogged. A couple of pits tested initially were not viable as seeds.

Still, he said the bottles are a remarkable find. In addition to DNA testing, he said chemical testing may be able to show if particular spices were used to preserve the fruits.

Records at Mount Vernon show that George and Martha Washington were fond of cherries, at least when mixed with brandy. Martha Washington's recipe for a "cherry bounce" cocktail survives, and Washington wrote that he took a canteen of cherry bounce with him on a trip across the Alleghenies in 1784.

These cherries, though, were most likely bottled to be eaten simply as cherries, Boroughs said.

The quality of the preservation reflect a high caliber of work. Slaves ran the plantation's kitchen. The kitchen was overseen by an enslaved woman named Doll, who came to Mount Vernon in 1758 with Martha Washington, according to the estate.

"The enslaved folks who were taking care of the trees, picking the fruit, working in the kitchen, those would have been the folks that probably would have overseen and done this process," Boroughs said. "It’s a highly skilled process. Otherwise they just wouldn’t have survived this way."

The bottles were found only because Mount Vernon is doing a $40 million revitalization project of the mansion that they expect to be completed by the nation's 250th birthday in 2026.

"When we do archaeology, it’s destructive," Boroughs said. "So unless we have a reason to disturb those resources, we tend not to."

"In this case, because of these needed structural repairs to the mansion, the ground was going to be disturbed. So we looked there first," he continued. "We didn’t expect to find all this."

They know the bottles predate 1775 because that's when an expansion of the mansion led to the area being covered over with a brick floor.

Mount Vernon announced back in April, at the start of its archaeological work, that it had found two bottles. As the dig continued, the number increased to 35 in six distinct storage pits. Six of the bottles were broken, with the other 29 intact. Twelve held cherries, 16 held the other berries believed to be currants and gooseberries, and one larger bottle held both cherries and other berries.

Boroughs believes they have now uncovered all the cherries and berries that survived.

"There is a lot of information that we’re excited to get from these bottles," he said.