US Government's Efforts to Ensure Meat Supply Amid Bird Flu Concerns

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The Department of Agriculture has initiated proactive measures, collaborating with federal agencies, to ensure the safety of the nation's meat supply.

cows dairy

Cattle.

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Since late March, outbreaks of the H5N1 virus have been confirmed in 34 dairy cattle herds across nine states, with an additional case reported in a person from Texas. In response, federal officials have launched a campaign involving the collection of ground beef samples from retail stores in affected states for rigorous testing. Despite expressing confidence in the safety of the meat supply, authorities are determined to verify the absence of viral contamination.

Andy Pekosz PhD a professor of microbiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, provided valuable insights into the matter, emphasizing the evolving nature of highly pathogenic avian influenza and its potential implications for human health.

Pekosz stated, “Highly pathogenic avian influenza was something for many years was just a concern of people interested in live in poultry, in wild animals and migratory birds. Since around 2000, there have been a few human infections with these highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses. And so that brought up the concern.”

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have emphasized a low overall public health risk from the outbreak. However, individuals with potential exposure to infected animals face a higher risk. Studies have indicated a wider prevalence of the virus among cows than officially reported, with approximately 20% of milk samples showing traces of H5N1 particles.

Recent announcements by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding the efficacy of pasteurization in eliminating the bird flu virus from milk have reassured consumers. Pekosz elaborated, “Pasteurization is an incredibly useful tool that essentially involves heating a sample to a high temperature then cooling it down quickly. It was unfortunate that avian flu got into some of the commercial milk supply, but this process of pasteurization has ensured that any traces of it in the milk are just traces of a dead virus particle.”

The USDA has implemented stringent measures, including analyzing ground beef samples using PCR tests to detect any viral presence. Additionally, 2 other safety studies will be conducted to ensure comprehensive protection of public health.

Furthermore, the USDA has mandated testing for lactating dairy cows before interstate movement as part of containment efforts. However, cows destined for immediate slaughter are exempt from this requirement, needing only documentation of veterinary inspection.

Pekosz highlighted the significance of efforts by regulatory agencies to assess the prevalence of avian influenza on dairy farms and implement control measures,

“Other agencies are looking at the dairy farms, and trying to get a handle on how many dairy farms are infected with this avian influenza virus. How extensive are those infections on a particular farm, really to try to then from the I'll say the epidemiology approach to try to limit the number of infections identify the infected cows now and remove them from the system so that we can control the source of the infection because while pasteurization is great to provide a safe food supply, it would be great if we also identified the infected cows and took them out of the system in terms of providing milk to provide that that extra layer of protection to the general public.”

Stringent inspection protocols are in place at slaughter facilities, with each animal inspected before slaughter and carcasses subject to post-slaughter inspection to ascertain compliance with food safety standards. Furthermore, the USDA is collecting beef muscle samples from condemned dairy cattle at slaughter facilities to assess the presence of viral particles.

In the event of positive PCR tests from retail or slaughter samples, further evaluation for live virus will be conducted, underscoring the government's commitment to ensuring the integrity of the meat supply and safeguarding public health.

Reference
Polansek T. US to test ground beef in states with bird-flu outbreaks in dairy cows. Published April 29, 2024. Accessed May 6, 2024. https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/usda-test-ground-beef-us-states-with-outbreaks-bird-flu-dairy-cows-2024-04-29/

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