June 20, 2024

Food safety facts: What you (and your customers) need to know about avian flu

Misinformation and hype can be more damaging to your business than any potential threat from the virus.

Recently, the A(A(H5N1)) strain of avian influenza has been finding its way into domestic poultry flocks.

The current avian flu, referred to as A(H5N1), has been in the news and all over social, so you may be worried about how to talk with your staff and customers if they bring it up. While scientists at the USDA, FDA, CDC and other organizations are still investigating how the virus spreads from one species to another, the CDC says the threat of human infection from A(H5N1) is low. 

Just like any other pathogen such as salmonella or E. coli that could make your customers sick, safe food handling practices are the best ways to reduce the risk of any foodborne illness, but it may help to understand the facts so you can readily answer questions.  

Here’s what you need to know (“What to Know About Bird Flu”):


Recently, the A(A(H5N1)) strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) has been finding its way from wild bird populations to domestic poultry flocks. A(H5N1) is highly pathogenic among birds, but also has the potential to infect other species. 

First detected in 1996 in domestic waterfowl, particularly geese, in Southern China, A(A(H5N1)) caused outbreaks in poultry in China and Hong Kong resulting in 18 human cases. Outbreaks in 2003 to 2005 spread the A(A(H5N1)) strain from Asia to the Pacific, Africa, the Middle East and Europe

A North American strain of A(A(H5N1)) carried by migratory birds is low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI), but the U.S. has been experiencing its first outbreak of the HPAI strain since early 2022. A(A(H5N1)) has been in the news even more since March of this year when the virus was discovered in herds of dairy cattle in Texas and Michigan. 

Since the USDA and state agricultural departments began testing in April, the virus has shown up in dairy herds in seven other states (CO, ID, NC, NM, OH, SC, SD). Two dairy farm workers, one in Texas, and one in Michigan, have been infected, bringing the number of known cases ever found in the U.S. to three. 

All three of these U.S. cases involved people who worked closely with infected animals on farms. (For example, the first U.S. case was a poultry farm worker in Colorado who was depopulating an infected flock of chickens.)

Facts to share

Unlike COVID-19, A(A(H5N1)) infection is not primarily through airborne transmission, but from direct contact with the virus, either from handling an infected bird or animal and touching your nose, mouth or eyes, or ingesting it. Scientists also theorize it’s possible that breathing dust containing the virus (from dried feces or a dead animal) could result in infection (“How Bird Flu is Spreading”). Farm workers should use personal protection equipment (PPE), especially when working with poultry flocks or dairy herds known to be infected. 

Pasteurized milk is safe to consume, as are products made from pasteurized milk. The heat of pasteurization kills the A(H5N1) virus along with other potential pathogens. Your customers may have heard that fragments of the A(H5N1) virus have been found in pasteurized milk. While true, the CDC states that virus fragments cannot infect humans. In late May, the FDA confirmed that 297 samples of retail dairy products produced at 132 processing locations across 38 states contained no viable HPAI A(H5N1) virus. And now that the USDA is monitoring dairy herds more closely, milk from sick herds is being destroyed before it’s transported to processors. 

The CDC advises against purchasing or serving raw milk or dairy products.

Beef is safe to eat. Your customers may have heard that some dairy cattle end up in the meat supply. The USDA considers the U.S. meat supply safe. And, cooking any raw meat product to the proper internal temperature per the FDA Food Code will kill the A(H5N1) virus along with any other potential pathogens.

Eggs are safe to eat when cooked to the proper temperature. In a joint risk assessment with the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the FDA determined that the chance of people getting infected with bird flu from shell eggs is low. And when properly stored and prepared, eggs pose an even lower risk. You can download a pdf on how to safely handle eggs

Again, cooking foods to proper internal temperatures kills the virus, according to the CDC.

The USDA now has incentives in place to encourage more testing of dairy herds and improve safety on affected premises, paying up to $28,000 for things like PPE for workers, development of biosecurity plans, reimbursement of veterinarian costs, and shipping costs of test samples. (Read this fact sheet for more on new actions to reduce the impact and spread of A(H5N1).) 

Facing a new disease so soon after the pandemic can potentially make customers nervous. Armed with the right information, avian flu becomes a lot less scary.