Oregon officials warn against drinking raw milk as bird flu outbreak spreads in dairy cows

By Alejandro Figueroa (OPB)
May 25, 2024 1 p.m.

The Oregon Health Authority is warning against drinking raw or unpasteurized milk, as a precaution. That warning comes amid several reported cases of H5N1 bird flu in dairy cattle herds across nine states — including Idaho. There are no reported cases of bird flu in Oregon dairy cows.

FILE - Milk is displayed at a grocery store in Philadelphia, Tuesday, July 12, 2022.

FILE - Milk is displayed at a grocery store in Philadelphia, Tuesday, July 12, 2022.

Matt Rourke / AP


The U.S. Department of Agriculture has confirmed over 50 dairy herds across several states have tested positive for bird flu, and the virus could be more widespread than current testing suggests, according to health officials.

A recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration report found when nearly 300 retail milk samples were tested, about 20% of the samples were positive for trace amounts of the virus, though none contained the live infectious virus.


Dr. Emilio DeBess, Oregon’s public health veterinarian, said there was no live virus because the milk sold in grocery stores is pasteurized. He said when the milk is heated, that kills disease-causing bacteria and viruses.

Although bird infections tend to be rare and mild, there have been reported cases of human infections with the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus tends to be fatal in poultry or wild birds.

“Pasteurized milk from the store is very safe to drink, and it poses no risk to anyone,” DeBess said. “What we’re concerned about is people that are drinking raw milk. And raw milk could potentially be a source of infection for people.”

Beyond bird flu, some of the health risks of raw milk could include E. Coli or Salmonella sickness. Young children and elderly people are more susceptible, according to DeBess.

In Oregon, people can only buy raw cow’s milk directly from a farm. It’s not sold at traditional grocery stores or provided to children in schools.

Oregon health officials said there have been at least 11 recorded outbreaks of illness caused by consuming raw milk from cows and goats since 1993.

USDA officials say it’s still safe to drink milk if it’s been pasteurized before being sold, although as an added precautionary measure, milk from cows sick with bird flu is being diverted or destroyed so that it does not enter the food supply.