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As bird flu continues to spread among dairy cows and poultry, are people at increased risk from eating eggs and drinking milk? Maja Mitrovic/Getty Images
  • In recent years, two people in the U.S. have contracted bird flu from animals.
  • Their symptoms were mild, and they recovered quickly.
  • The risk of transmission from animals to humans is considered to be low.
  • Eggs and dairy are safe, provided the eggs are cooked and the dairy is pasteurized.
  • Experts say it is safest to avoid raw animal products.

On April 1, 2024, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that a person in Texas had tested positive for highly pathogenic avian influenza, also known as “bird flu.”

According to the agency, the person had been exposed to the HPAI A(H5N1) virus via presumably infected dairy cattle.

The CDC’s press release stated that the person’s only symptom was eye redness. They were being isolated and treated with an antiviral drug.

This report brings the total number of humans in the U.S. who have contracted the virus to two.

The CDC previously released a statement in April 2022 about another human case that occurred in Colorado. In that case, the disease was contracted via exposure to poultry.

The symptoms again were mild, with the patient reporting feeling tired for a few days and then recovering after undergoing isolation and antiviral treatment.

Given the fact that these people contracted the virus through exposure to both cows and chickens, this begs the question of whether people could potentially catch bird flu by drinking milk or eating eggs. Here’s what health experts have to say.

Dr. Daisy May — a veterinary surgeon and pet care writer for All About Parrots — explained that HPAI can spread rapidly among wild birds and domestic poultry like chickens and turkeys.

“It’s been wreaking havoc on poultry farms across the country this year,” she said.

May went on to say that, although bird flu is mainly an animal health issue, there have been cases where it jumped to humans when they had been in extremely close, prolonged contact with infected animals.

“So it seems the risk is relatively low but not zero,” said May.

The CDC echoed May’s opinion, stating that “[t]his infection does not change the H5N1 bird flu human health risk assessment for the U.S. general public, which CDC considers to be low.”

People who work closely over extended periods of time with infected animals — especially those who are not taking precautions — are at the greatest risk, they note.

May said the bigger question on everyone’s mind is whether our food supply is safe.

“For eggs, as long as you’re fully cooking them until the yolks are firm with no runny parts, the risks are very low, according to food safety experts,” she said. “Any potentially present virus would be killed off by proper heat treatment.”

According to May, it’s raw or undercooked eggs that could pose a problem since the virus may be able to survive within the yolk.

“As for milk and dairy, we’re in great shape there thanks to pasteurization,” she said. “That heating process is more than enough to neutralize any lingering bird flu virus.”

So, you can continue to consume milk, cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products without worry, according to May.

She added, however, that one area of concern is raw, unpasteurized dairy products like you would obtain from small farms or private sellers.

“While there haven’t been any documented cases of transmission that way, some extra caution may be warranted,” said May.

However, it’s also important to note that it is possible to contract other (often bacterial) illnesses from raw or undercooked eggs or raw milk.

May said that if you “want to play it extra safe,” you should stick with fully cooked eggs and pasteurized dairy products.

It’s also essential to properly handle and cook all meat and poultry, making sure it reaches a safe internal temperature, she said. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), this would be 165 °F (73.9 °C) for poultry and 145 °F (62.8 °C) for beef as measured with a food thermometer.

Finally, make sure you do a thorough job of washing your hands when you work with any raw animal products, said May.

Nancy Mitchell — a registered nurse and a contributing writer at Assisted Living — added that it’s important to also be careful about how you handle eggshells.

“Feces from infected birds will likely carry the bird flu virus,” she explained. “This means that handling eggs that are still soiled with bird feces could put you at risk of contracting the illness.”

If you are handling eggshells, use single-use gloves and avoid touching your face with your hands prior to washing them with soap and water, she said.

Mitchell further advises that you don’t assume an eggshell is clean just because there’s no visible sign of feces.

“Viruses are microscopic, and fecal particles could be lingering in places that the naked eye can’t detect,” she said.

However, it’s important to note that most USDA-graded eggs or large-volume egg processors include a washing step followed by a sanitizing rinse.

In recent years, there have been two reported cases of bird flu being transmitted from animals to humans.

The CDC states that the risk of contracting bird flu is low, but the risk is greater for those who are working closely with infected animals over an extended period of time.

Experts say to avoid eating raw eggs or drinking unpasteurized milk.

You should also make sure that poultry and other meats reach an adequate internal temperature in order to kill any pathogens that might be present.

Other steps you can take to protect yourself include using gloves to handle any potentially contaminated eggshells, not touching your face with unwashed hands, and washing your hands thoroughly after handling raw animal products.