North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler told Council of State members Tuesday that his department is monitoring the situation involving dairy cattle in Texas, Kansas, Utah, and Michigan that have contracted the bird flu and the agency is taking proactive steps to handle the potential spread.

“We certainly hope that this is not going to be a full-blown zoonotic disease that would severely hamper what we ought to do in the case that high-path AI (Avian Influenza) does get in the poultry flocks in the state,” said Commissioner Troxler. “There are a lot of unanswered questions right now, but the good news is the food supply is safe as pasteurization does take care of the virus during that process, but I would not want to be drinking raw milk right now, I can tell you that.”

This follows a report on Monday of one person testing positive for the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), or “H5N1 bird flu” as reported by Texas authorities and confirmed by the CDC. 

Prior to this, the last confirmed case of bird flu was in Colorado in 2022. 

“Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza A (HPAI) H5N1 virus is an emerging disease in cattle,” read USDA documents describing the virus and the agency’s course of action with the emergent cases. “Federal and state agencies are moving quickly to conduct additional testing for HPAI (H5N1) virus, as well as viral genome sequencing, so that we can better understand the situation, including characterization of the HPAI (H5N1) virus strain or strains associated with these detections as well as any other multi-factorial components of the disease event in dairy cattle. This is a rapidly evolving situation. USDA and federal and state partners will continue to share additional updates as soon as information becomes available. Our goal is to safeguard the health of the herd and protect the industry; keep our milk and beef supply safe; and protect public health and human safety based on the most up-to-date information we have.”

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) addressed risks to the general public in a press release.

“This person had exposure to dairy cattle in Texas presumed to be infected with HPAI A(H5N1) viruses,” according to the CDC press release. “The patient reported eye redness (consistent with conjunctivitis), as their only symptom, and is recovering. The patient was told to isolate and is being treated with an antiviral drug for flu. 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. 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.”

According to a recent report from the USDA, the agencies confirmed the detection of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) on March 25 in two dairy herds in Texas and two dairy herds in Kansas that had cattle exhibiting these symptoms. USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories (NVSL) has now also confirmed the presence of HPAI in a Michigan dairy herd that had recently received cows from Texas. Presumptive positive test results have also been received for additional herds in New Mexico, Idaho, and Texas; USDA said they will share updates if those tests are confirmed positive by NVSL.

Meanwhile, federal and state agencies continue to conduct additional testing in swabs from sick animals and in unpasteurized clinical milk samples from sick animals, as well as viral genome sequencing, to assess whether HPAI or another unrelated illness may be underlying any symptoms.

Even though authorities are on the case, the virus is being detected in an expanding radius. On April 1, a herd in New Mexico was confirmed HPAI positive, and a herd in Iowa was confirmed HPAI positive on April 2. 

“There was a kind of a mystery disease that had started emerging in dairy cattle in Texas, and then subsequently spread to New Mexico, and Kansas,” says Dr. Michael Martin, North Carolina State Veterinarian and the director of the veterinary division at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.  “Then they were doing testing for weeks on these cows trying to figure out what was going on.”

The cows would stop eating food, drop in milk production, and they would get a thickening discoloration of their milk, “almost like colostrum,” according to Dr. Martin.  It is unclear whether or not these symptoms are symptoms of A(H5N1), however, all herds that are testing positive are exhibiting these signs. 

“Eventually, there were some people that had noticed on some of the farms, that there were some dead wild birds likely associated with our highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak on some of these farms,” said Dr. Martin. “That’s what they got them to start testing some of the cattle on these herds and subsequently found some of the cattle being positive from milk samples, and also from swabs of the cows themselves, respiratory.” 

Due to concerns in state and a lack of restrictions at the USDA, North Carolina officials have come out with their own restrictions concerning this “emerging disease,” according to Dr. Martin.

“We came out with a ban on cattle originating from an affected herd,” reported Dr. Martin. “So regardless of whether it’s one of these states we mentioned, or any future state that might have positive cows, or any US territory that has a herd that meets this clinical description, we are not allowing other cows from those farms, from those herds. So that’s been our step, and then there’s been a couple of other states that have subsequently made similar restrictions.”

According to CDC recommendations, people “should avoid unprotected (not using respiratory or eye protection) exposures to sick or dead animals including wild birds, poultry, other domesticated birds, and other wild or domesticated animals, as well as with animal feces, litter, or materials contaminated by birds or other animals with suspected or confirmed HPAI A(H5N1) virus infection. People should not prepare or eat uncooked or undercooked food or related uncooked food products, such as unpasteurized (raw) milk, or raw cheeses, from animals with suspected or confirmed HPAI A(H5N1) virus infection (avian influenza or bird flu.”

One of the primary concerns when it comes to diseases such as A(H5NI) is food safety. Fortunately, the FDA, the CDC, and the USDA all agree the food supply is safe. Affected milk is not entering the food supply.

 “If it does get into the food supply, milk is pasteurized, and that’s the whole reason why we pasteurized milk: to kill bugs like this various viruses or bacteria,” says Dr. Martin. “So, the fact that the milk is not entering the food supply and that they’re pasteurizing milk, combined, provides a level of safety and security for the public, regarding milk. So, we’re not looking at this as any kind of food safety issue.”