Texas avian flu outbreak spreads from cows to humans and chickens, but is ‘a very, very small part of the overall picture,’ state agriculture boss says

An avian flu infection spreading across cattle herds in Texas has jumped to humans and chickens. Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller told Fortune that officials are still hopeful the outbreak will stay contained—but advised consumers to stop drinking unpasteurized milk until health authorities are certain it’s safe to do so.

“We’re seeing that some of the milk is hot—we first thought that it didn’t transfer from animal to animal, but now we’re rethinking that,” Miller said. “It’s probably a good idea not to consume unpasteurized dairy products.”

Agricultural agencies in Texas, Kansas, and New Mexico started getting reports last month of an unidentified virus affecting dairy cows in the region. After weeks of testing, the illness was found to be HPAI, a disease spread by migratory birds who had contaminated cows’ water supply. Last week, authorities said they were confident that the outbreak would remain contained.

A week later, though, the situation is more severe. Cows in Idaho and Michigan have also tested positive for the virus. A dairy worker had contracted an HPAI infection and displayed mild symptoms including pink eye, the Texas Department of Health and Human Services reported Monday. Yesterday, the Texas Department of Agriculture disclosed that the outbreak had spread to Cal-Maine Foods, the nation’s largest egg producer. 

Cal-Maine is killing nearly 2 million hens, around 4% of its population, and destroying millions more eggs in order to contain the virus. Miller said that the virus still shouldn’t have a significant economic impact in terms of commodity prices.

“[Cal-Maine] is our largest egg producer in the United States, but it’s less than 4% of the farm. So I don’t think we’re going to see egg or poultry price increases,” Miller said. “Same with dairy—it’s a very, very small amount of [the] overall picture. Consumers are absolutely safe.”

Authorities are still unsure if HPAI can be transmitted through milk from infected dairy cows—hence the warnings against unpasteurized milk. All milk sold across state lines must be pasteurized by law, but unpasteurized milk is legal in dozens of states and raw milk and cheese are common at many farmers’ markets. Miller said that consumers shouldn’t worry about eggs, because all potentially hot (or contaminated) eggs have been destroyed.

Miller said that the Texas Agriculture Department and other authorities are working to get answers about how the virus spreads and contain it as soon as possible, providing much-needed relief for the Texas Panhandle region recently devastated by the largest wildfire in the state’s history.

“We’re highly recommending that [workers] use biosecurity measures, especially workers around cattle,” Miller said. “[We’re recommending] respiratory coverings and that workers cover their eyes—things like that.”

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