Raw milk lovers are spinning the government's H5N1 warnings into a conspiracy theory

It's become absolutely clear that H5N1 has been detected in raw milk in "very high concentrations." While scientists are still trying to determine exactly how likely it is that the virus in raw milk can infect humans, the FDA is strongly urging consumers to avoid all raw milk products. Food Safety News reports that "it's only fair to note that science does not know if people can get H5N1 from drinking raw milk, but because of the high levels of viral loads, it's certainly a possibility."

According to Food Safety News, it's legal to buy raw milk in 27 states. They also report on the very real, very well-established safety risks, far beyond H5N1, of drinking raw milk:

Raw milk can carry harmful germs, such as Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, E. coli, Listeria, Brucella, and Salmonella . . . Raw milk is one of the riskiest foods. People who get sick from raw milk might have many days of diarrhea, stomach cramping, and vomiting. Some people can develop severe or even life-threatening diseases, including: Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause paralysis, and Hemolytic uremic syndrome can result in kidney failure, stroke, and even death.

Stat News cites expert pathologists who are adamant that people should avoid raw milk:

"If I were in charge, for the moment I would forbid the selling of raw milk," said Thijs Kuiken, a pathologist in the department of viroscience at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, who has done research on H5N1 and the damage it inflicts for about two decades.

H5N1 bird flu has been circulating in dairy cow herds in multiple parts of the country, likely for months now. Testing of milk from infected cows shows the virus is present in concentrations that have taken scientists by surprise. They worry that if a raw-milk consumer inadvertently drank milk from infected cows, the results could be bad — potentially really bad . . . 

Kuiken said his concern about the risk that infected raw milk poses is not so much that the practice might somehow help the virus to mutate in ways that would allow it to spread easily to and among people — in other words, trigger a pandemic. But he believes it would likely seriously sicken people who drink raw milk from an H5N1-infected cow. Reports of the amount of virus present in infected udders is higher than anything he's seen in studies where he's experimentally infected animals with H5N1 to chart the illness the virus wreaked, Kuiken said.

Unfortunately, raw milk consumption is on the rise, thanks partly to TikTok. The Guardian explains:

As Women's Wear Daily observed this month: "Raw milk is the internet's latest wellness craze." Last summer, NBC News reported that "the raw milk debate is pitting TikTokers and farmers against doctors", and the New York Times noted that more states were legalizing the sale of raw milk.

Take one video posted on TikTok by a supplement company called Heart and Soil. In it, three young people toss a gallon of (presumably raw) milk to each other, take a deep swig, and say things like, "Raw milk is generally misunderstood by most people," and "Unfortunately, most of the milk you find in grocery stores is pasteurized."

In another, Paul Saladino, a popular fitness influencer also known as Carnivore MD, shirtlessly sings the supposed praises of raw milk, saying, "This is nothing like that pasteurized, homogenized milk you get in the store, guys."

The Guardian also explains that raw milk enthusiasts believe that it has "more vitamins and minerals than pasteurized milk," a claim disputed by the CDC, which states on its "Raw Milk Questions and Answers" page that "Multiple studies have shown that pasteurization does not significantly affect the nutritional quality of milk. Scientists do not have any evidence that shows a nutritional benefit from drinking raw milk."

Some raw milk enthusiasts are not only ignoring the recommendations of the FDA, CDC, and pathologists but are actively spinning these government warnings into a conspiracy theory. The LA Times recently published an article highlighting some of these raw milk enthusiasts who are: 

doubling down on the claimed benefits and safety of their favorite elixir, and say the government warnings are nothing more than "fearmongering."

Mark McAfee, founder of Fresno's Raw Farm and the Raw Milk Institute, said his phone has been ringing off the hook with "customers asking for H5N1 milk because they want immunity from it." . . . 

Other raw milk drinkers, such as Peg Coleman, a medical microbiologist who runs Coleman Scientific Consulting, a Groton, N.Y.-based food safety consulting company, claimed the government's warnings have no basis in reality.

Coleman, who is an advisor to the Raw Milk Institute, has provided expert testimony on the benefits of the unpasteurized dairy product in courtrooms across the nation.

"It's a fear factor. It's an opinion factor. It's based on 19th century evidence. It's absolutely ridiculous," she said, citing research that shows healthy gut biomes and breast milk provide immune system benefits.

I took a peek at the Raw Milk Institute website, whose vision is to "build a healthier world where raw milk is safe, embraced, and accessible.  RAWMI empowers dairy farmers and consumers by providing support from grass to glass and soil to soul." Earlier this month, they published a piece claiming to debunk the government's data regarding why people should not drink raw milk. The piece is called, "Raw Milk and H5N1 Bird Influenza: Where is the Evidence?" and the Raw Milk Institute introduces it like this:

We are pleased to share with you this balanced analysis of the risks of H5N1 bird flu from raw milk, from medical microbiologist Peg Coleman. Peg serves on the Advisory Board for Raw Milk Institute 

The article attempts to refute the government's warnings about drinking raw milk, touts the supposed "antiviral properties of raw milk," and encourages people to continue drinking raw milk. Coleman summarizes her argument:

Recent risk communications from CDC FDA, and USDA regarding transmission of influenza A sub-type H5N1 (highly pathogenic avian influenza virus or HPAI) to humans via raw milk include no supporting evidence of viral transmission from raw milk to humans in the peer-reviewed literature. CDC and USDA reported that the HPAI strains recently isolated in the US lack the genetic markers for viruses adapted to infect humans. An extensive body of scientific evidence from the peer-reviewed literature introduced herein does not support the assumption by these US government agencies that HPAI transmits to humans via milkborne or foodborne routes and causes disease. Nor does the scientific evidence support the recommendation that consumers should avoid raw milk and raw milk products.

I really hope people don't have to learn the hard way that they shouldn't be drinking raw milk. As if Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, E. coli, Listeria, Brucella, and Salmonella weren't bad enough, H5N1 currently has a case fatality rate of 56%:

From 1 January 2003 to 28 March 2024, a total of 254 cases of human infection with avian influenza A(H5N1) virus have been reported from four countries within the Western Pacific Region (Table 1). Of these cases, 141 were fatal, resulting in a case fatality rate (CFR) of 56%. 

Nobody really knows yet if that rate will remain the same if H5N1 starts spreading widely from cows to humans or from human to human. Needless to say, I hope it doesn't. I also need to remind everyone that, like COVID-19, H5N1 is airborne, and, just as with COVID-19, masking with a good respirator (KN95, N95, or better) remains a wonderful tool for protection.

Stay safe out there, friends!

Previously: Here`s the latest on H5N1—avian flu—and some resources tracking the virus