Cows getting milked on a factory farm.

20 Percent of Cows’ Milk Contain Bird Flu, WHO Declares Global Zoonotic Pandemic



One in five milk samples in the United States found traces of bird flu (H5N1), according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Former US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams is sounding the alarm on bird flu, which has now been found in one out of five commercially available milk samples in the United States. Cows across the United States have tested positive for bird flu, but it’s a lot more than originally thought.

As of Friday, April 11, 2024, cows’ milk from 26 herds across eight states contained the virus after first being reported in March. Now, 33 herds have officially been infected just 18 days later---though experts agree it could be far more widespread than reported--with the Texas agricultural commissioner speculating as many as 40 percent of the herds in the Texas Panhandle might be infected.

According to Dr. Adams, the rapid replication of bird flu is “going to cause problems for humans” due to more chances the virus has to mutate. He goes on to express that the United States is “repeating many of the early mistakes of COVID-19,” according to the New York Post, and is putting business interests over the public’s health.

Rick Bright, an H5N1 expert who served on President Biden’s COVID advisory board told Seynep Tufekci, a New York Times columnist and professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University: 

“There’s a fine line between one person and 10 people with H5N1. By the time we’ve detected 10, it’s probably too late [to contain].”

The Biden Administration only mandated testing for bird flu in dairy cows transporting between states as of April 24, but the fractured monitoring of the outbreak between three government agencies (the USDA, the FDA, and the CDC) can lead to miscommunication on the spread.

As of April 29, 2024, none of the pasteurized milk samples that were tested contained live viruses (fragments of virus cells were found), but it’s “shed in milk at high concentrations,” according to the FDA. As of this writing, the FDA has not completed specific testing to confirm pasteurization would make milk from infected cows safe. Unpasteurized milk, which is legal in many states, is still a major concern given death in cats who have consumed the milk and recent infections.

The USDA also failed to share the genomes from infected animals in a timely manner, according to Tufekci, and the CDC says it’s monitoring data from emergency rooms for any signs of an outbreak—though factory farm workers are often undocumented and likely don’t have access to health care. Because of their undocumented status and fear of deportation (reinforced by their own bosses most times), farm workers often won’t go to emergency rooms until it’s too late. As of April 24, only 23 people have been tested for bird flu—a shockingly low number for how large the animal agricultural industry is. 

The FDA is still unclear on how the virus is spreading and it currently has not been transmitted from human to human (it can jump from chickens and cows to humans, though). There is speculation that the disease is spreading between herds through milking machines, from aerosolized spray when milking room floors are power washed, or alarmingly, the cows’ feed.

Because the United States allows farmers to feed leftover bird bedding material, such as feathers, excrement, and spilled seeds, to cows used for beef and dairy as a cheap source of additional protein, the possibility that this is a likely route for the virus is alarming as bird flu spreads rapidly through chicken factory farms. The USDA has also noted that it has evidence bird flu has spread from dairy farms back to  farms “through an unknown route.”

According to The Times’ Tufekci, humans traveling between dairy and chicken farms exposed to the virus likely also travel to pig farms. Tufekci notes pigs are “doomsday animals for human influenza pandemic,” and are especially susceptible to both avian and human flu—a risk that could mutate the virus and make it human-to-human transmissible.

Tufekci writes:

“When dangerous novel pathogens emerge among humans, there is only a small window of time in which to stop them before they spiral out of control. Neither our animal farming practices nor our public health tools seem up to the task.”

Dr. Jeremy Farrar, chief scientist at the World Health Organization (WHO), declared that bird flu found in cows’ milk is of “great concern,” especially since live viruses have been found in raw (unpasteurized) milk. Dr. Farrar noted that H5N1 has an “extremely high” mortality rate among those who have been infected around the world. Farrar notes,

“The great concern, of course, is that … [the] virus now evolves and develops the ability to infect humans. And then critically, the ability to go from human-to-human transmission.”

The World Health Organization has declared avian flu a global zoonotic pandemic and is urging major health agencies from Africa, China, Europe, and the United States to ensure there is an immediate response with “access equitability to vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics,” should there be a confirmed human-to-human transmission. This initiative was originally sparked by the response to COVID-19 and how the lack of commonly agreed terms regarding transmission made it challenging to stop the spread.

At this time, Dr. Farrar said vaccine development for a possible human to human transmission is not “where we need to be,” and regional offices, country offices, and public health authorities around the world currently do not have the capability to diagnose H5N1.

Currently, people with close or prolonged unprotected exposure to infected animals are at a higher risk of contracting the virus, according to federal agencies. In the United States, two people have tested positive for bird flu since 2022—a Texas dairy worker in close contact with an infected cow and a prison inmate who caught it while killing infected birds at a Colorado farm while participating in a work program.

Cal-Maine Foods, the largest egg producer in the US, temporarily halted operations on April 2 after finding bird flu in chicken flocks. The company culled over 1.6 million laying hens and another 337,00 pullets (young hens) since the detection.

Since 2022, outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza have led to the killing of more than 80 million birds on factory farms in the United States. The spread of H5N1 avian influenza, which has hit Europe and the Americas hard since 2021, has been described as “the largest-ever” continuous outbreak of the disease.

Because bird flu is so infectious, it spreads rapidly throughout bird populations. Chickens, turkeys, and ducks on factory farms are highly susceptible due to the cramped, overcrowded conditions they’re forced to endure.

Transmissible through saliva, mucous, or feces, wild birds can easily be infected if they’re around factory farms that have been exposed to the disease—especially if the wild birds are scavengers who consume the bodies of birds who have died before reaching the slaughterhouse. This leads to migratory birds being infected and then spreading the disease throughout the globe as they travel.

On April 24, 2024, footage of a falcon dying from suspected bird flu and falling out of her nest in the Netherlands was seen by more than 126,000 people on Twitter (X). Her chicks died a short time later, according to BNO News.

Warning: Footage is disturbing.

In fact, this highly infectious disease is currently threatening Antarctica’s most unique wildlife populations and has jumped to every continent except Australia. The World Organization for Animal Health (WOAH) noted that approximately 485 bird species and 37 mammal species have been infected with avian influenza since 2021.

Factory farms are breeding grounds for diseases. Many scientists predict they could be ground zero for a future global pandemic.

Now more than ever, we need to rethink the way we interact with all animals.

By shifting to more sustainable and kinder practices, such as reducing or eliminating our consumption and use of animals, we can end the largest source of animal cruelty on the planet: factory farming.

But the animals we share this planet with can’t wait. Take action to ban factory farming right now.

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