A North Carolina dairy herd tested positive for the highly pathogenic avian influenza, following reports of positive herds in several other states, and one confirmed case in Texas last week. 

“This is an evolving situation, and we are waiting for more diagnostics from NVSL and will work collaboratively with our federal partners and dairy farmers in North Carolina,” said North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler in a press release. “We have spent years developing methods to handle HPAI in poultry, but this is new and we are working with our state and federal partners to develop protocols to handle this situation. It is important to note the FDA has no concern about the safety or availability of pasteurized milk products nationwide.”

In the last week, dairy herds in Texas, Kansas, Michigan, Idaho, New Mexico, and Ohio have tested positive for the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) or “H5N1 bird flu.” Additionally, on April 1, one person tested positive for H5N1, as reported by the CDC. 

“This infection does not change the H5N1 bird flu human health risk assessment for the U.S. general public, which CDC considers to be low,” according to a press release from the CDC.  “However, people with close or prolonged, unprotected exposures to infected birds or other animals (including livestock), or to environments contaminated by infected birds or other animals, are at greater risk of infection.”

The case in Texas is the second confirmed case of H5N1 bird flu in the United States. The first case was confirmed in Colorado in late April 2022, almost exactly two years ago.

The case reported in Texas emerges as “the House and Senate Agriculture committees are drafting a new farm bill that typically lasts for about five years and includes funding for the animal health system,” reported Roll Call last week. “The last farm bill, enacted in 2018, provided $300 million for animal and health entities and initiatives between fiscal years 2019 and 2023. Congress extended that farm bill by a year, and it expires on September 30th.”

Following these incidents, North Carolina instituted a ban on any cattle from an affected herd coming into North Carolina. Despite the ban, it appears exposed cattle were still imported to North Carolina.

“The herd is linked to the herd in Texas,” Dr. Michael Martin, North Carolina State Veterinarian and the director of the veterinary division at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, told the Carolina Journal in an email on Thursday. “The herd in Texas that had not been showing signs of HPAI were shipped to Idaho, Michigan and Ohio and subsequently presented clinical signs of the illness. Cows from that same herd had been transported to North Carolina. North Carolina has suspended movement of cows from infected herds until further notice. The herd in North Carolina is also in isolation.”

State agencies are collaborating to ensure that this situation is handled properly and to prevent the further spread of infection. 

“The NC Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services and the NC Department of Health and Human Services are in close communication on this matter,” reads a press release from North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) said in a press release. “There are no concerns with the safety of the commercial milk supply at this time because products are pasteurized before entering the market. People should not consume or prepare food with raw or unpasteurized milk.”

One natural concern, when it comes to herds of livestock infected with H5N1, is the threat to the safety of the food supply. Fortunately, the food supply appears to be safe.

“The FDA has stated that they have no concern about the safety or availability of pasteurized milk products,” said Dr. Martin. “In North Carolina, raw milk cannot be sold commercially for human consumption.”

The FDA explains the process by which the milk supply is protected from infected herds.

 “Only milk from healthy animals is authorized for distribution into interstate commerce for human consumption,” according to the FDA. “Additionally, pasteurization is required for any milk entering interstate commerce. Pasteurization has continually proven to inactivate bacteria and viruses, like influenza, in milk. Milk from ill (symptomatic) animals is being diverted or destroyed so that it does not enter the human food supply. Milk loss resulting from symptomatic cattle to date is too limited to have a major impact on supply and there should be no impact on the price of milk or other dairy products.”