A multi-state outbreak of bird flu in dairy cows first reported late-March in Texas has not been detected in cattle in Lebanon County nor across Pennsylvania.  

The virus also has not been found in the food supply and if it were in milk, it would be killed through pasteurization, according to Dr. Ernest Hovingh, director, Animal Diagnostic Lab at Penn State and a clinical professor and Penn State Cooperative Extension veterinarian. 

Hovingh is the lead director for Pennsylvania’s three diagnostic laboratories that are approved to test for the avian flu virus in dairy animals and is the lead veterinarian on behalf of the cooperative extension network in the fight against the disease in dairy cattle. 

“Pasteurization was developed a long time ago when a lot more things were getting into milk that were a lot more dangerous for people,” said Hovingh. “Louis Pasteur came up with this process for heat treating, I believe originally wine is what he used that for. It is intended to kill off organisms that are harmful to people. It was put in place a long, long time ago and is still being used to increase the safety of milk and it generally increases the shelf life of milk as well.”

Dave Smith, executive director, Pennsylvania Dairymen’s Association and North Londonderry Township resident, concurs with Hovingh’s statement about dairy products being safe. 

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“To that point, it is not a concern with the food supply. The milk you drink is 100 percent safe. It is a virus that affects the cattle, it has no effect on the food supply,” said Smith. “Pasteurization clears out and kills any bacteria or viruses that may be in milk. In fact, that’s a safeguard that is really unmatched as far as the food supply is concerned.”

Milkshakes and all dairy products are safe to consume if the product has been pasteurized. Additionally, although not found in Pennsylvania, any milk found to have traces of the avian flu virus is not sold to consumers. (LebTown file photo)

The commonwealth’s three testing labs are located in Harrisburg at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center and University Park in State College, which is where Hovingh is based. 

Hovingh said the state’s labs are testing raw milk or using nasal swabs on non-lactating animals for two purposes. 

“It is only being tested for movement purposes or if we have any herds where the disease is suspected – even if it is a very remote suspicion,” said Hovingh. “So we’re not testing milk from store shelves. We are testing raw milk from farms. If a producer wants to move cows across state lines, for example, lactating cows, they need to have a test done. Like I said, if there is a herd where it is suspected, then we are testing samples from that milk, so we’re not testing pasteurized milk from stores at our labs.”

Officials are focused on preventing the spread of the virus in the dairy cattle population here and around the nation. The way officials are working to control it is through containment efforts. There are over 50-plus herds in nine states that had contracted the disease, including neighboring Ohio, as of Tuesday, according to the Center for Disease Control.

“It spreads through birds, for one, so farmers are trying to eliminate contact with birds and the feed supply for their cattle. They’re very careful about inter-mingling cattle that may have been exposed,” said Smith. “I can tell you that the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has limited cattle movement. There are rules in place right now to lock it (the avian flu virus) into place so that it doesn’t spread further, and Pennsylvania farmers are part of that system.” 

“Is it possible that people are moving in animals without testing? I guess that’s a possibility,” said Hovingh, who added that the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture is the regulatory agency in charge of monitoring dairy cattle movement. “There are systems in place to kind of monitor that, but is it possible that people are breaking the law? That is a possibility. We don’t have someone watching cattle trailers coming in from Ohio on I-80.”

There’s another safeguard to help prevent the disease from spreading by dairy herd movement if it were to be detected in any animals in Pennsylvania. 

“There’s a procedure in place where veterinarians have been requested to watch for any herds that have signs that are compatible with what’s being seen in other states, so they are on the lookout for that,” said Hovingh about his fellow veterinarian practitioners in Pennsylvania. “They need to report those (signs) if they see them.”

Hovingh said farmers also should keep a watchful eye on their herds to monitor a potential outbreak. The first case discovered in Texas is believed to have been a spillover event, meaning the virus was spread from a wild bird to a dairy herd, probably through the feed supply.

“One of the biggest hallmarks seems to be a group of animals – older animals that are in mid-lactation of the lactation cycle – that tend to go off ruminant and the ruminant activity drops, so they have a drop in milk production as well,” noted Hovingh. “So those seem to be the most consistent signs that they are seeing. There may be other signs, but those tend to be hit or miss. Most cows don’t get really sick. Most animals will recover in two to three weeks after they develop this syndrome.”

Hovingh added that the flu virus is not contributing or showing up as pneumonia or causing other respiratory health issues. Still, farmers should be vigilant and take action if a problem is detected.  

“If he or she sees something in their animals that sounds like the disease is there, they need to report that to their veterinarian or the Department of Agriculture so that those animals can be tested,” said Hovingh. 

Hovingh noted that it behooves farmers to contact their veterinarian if they suspect their cattle contracted the avian flu, adding that testing comes at no cost to producers since that tab is being covered by the United States Department of Agriculture. 

There are a number of common clinical avian influenza signs that producers should watch for in their dairy cattle, including low appetite, reduced milk production and abnormal appearance of milk that is thickened and discolored.

“What it seems to be is that this infects a fair number of animals in the herd, from what we’ve seen from other states, and so it’s not just an individual animal that drops in milk production,” said Hovingh. “So you will have a bunch of animals that seem to get sick, not severely sick, but enough that they drop in milk production pretty significantly. It makes sense that producers should call their veterinarian to have it investigated because it obviously affects their bottom line.” 

While avian influenza virus type A (H5N1) is associated with high morbidity and mortality in poultry animals and birds because it is highly pathogenic, this hasn’t been the case with dairy cattle.

“If the infection is in a poultry house, a large percentage of those animals are going to die of the disease,” said Hovingh. “It’s inhumane to allow them to die on their own. Because there is a tremendous amount of virus when a bird is infected, they are going to die, so it makes sense to depopulate the flock and help prevent the disease from spreading.”

Unlike birds, the virus has been self-limiting in dairy herds, added Hovingh.

“It does not come with a high death loss in cattle by any means and they tend to recover pretty well from it,” added Hovingh. “So it doesn’t make sense from a health perspective nor does it make sense from an economic perspective to do that (euthanize) to cattle.” 

Hovingh said the protocol, when the virus is found in cattle, is to prevent it from spreading by keeping animals on the farm. Additionally, milk from sick animals is not allowed to be sold.

Hovingh said risks to the general public are “as close to zero as they can be.” A farm worker in Texas contracted the disease, but he believes the likelihood of it spreading to humans who are not employed in production agriculture is very low. 

“It’s common for a milker to get milk on their hands or arms, it’s the nature of the business,” said Hovingh. “While the total number of people to have been tested hasn’t been shared, it’s only been found in one person. I think that occurrences in humans are probably very low.” 

Hovingh said he believes that because of the high number of people who work in the poultry and dairy industries, adding that monitoring is being “carefully conducted.” 

Despite the low risk to humans, Hovingh advised dairy farmers to practice caution with their animals.

The Pennsylvania Veterinary Laboratory in Harrisburg is one of three statewide testing labs that can be utilized if traces of avian flu are discovered to be in raw milk from dairy cattle located across the state. So far, no dairy products have been tested here since the virus is not in any dairy herds located in Pennsylvania. (James Mentzer)

Fortunately, his lab is doing very little poultry and dairy testing right now. Although he didn’t have specific numbers to share, he said most dairy testing involves what he called low-risk concerns about the disease or for cattle that a farmer wishes to move. 

The lower number of poultry tests also indicates the virus has subsided in those animals across Pennsylvania.

“On the poultry side, the numbers have been quite quiet. We’ve had a few calls for suspect flocks. Those involve a few backyard flocks, so we’ve had some calls there,” said Hovingh. “On the dairy side of things, there’s been very little testing done. If we get a call from PDA, it’s for a dairy herd that might have the disease. Only a few cases of that have happened. We’re not seeing a lot of cases out there that the Bureau of Health is calling us to do testing.” 

Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture press secretary Shannon Powers said no milk testing has occurred at the lab in Harrisburg, adding it will be mobilized if the virus is located in the Keystone state.

Smith told LebTown the Harrisburg-based Center for Dairy Excellence has been focused on helping PA dairy farmers elevate their biosecurity so they can limit potential exposure to the virus.

“They’ve been very proactive in promoting the rules and protocols for our dairy farms in Pennsylvania,” said Smith about the Center’s efforts. 

Jayne Sebert, executive director, Center for Dairy Excellence, said her non-profit organization has prepared and is distributing biosecurity resource kits to farmers who request them. Center officials also have been conducting weekly calls with dairy officials to discuss movement of the disease, among other topics. 

“We have been encouraging all of our farms to ramp up their biosecurity protocols, to be vigilant and protect their herds,” said Sebert. “If and when it comes to Pennsylvania, it is a virus, so we can mitigate cattle movement, we can enhance our biosecurity protocols, we can limit it through those processes. But to say that it is never going to come to Pennsylvania is something that we can’t fully control. We can be vigilant about keeping it away, but if it does come to Pennsylvania, we also can be vigilant about keeping our herds safe.” 

Sebert said a biosecurity plan is a written document that describes the type of farm operation and protocols in place to reduce the spread of any disease. 

“Plans include such things as how they clean and sanitize around the farm, how they’re limiting visitors coming in and out of the farm, how they’re limiting cattle movement, how they’re limiting anything that comes in and out of their farm,” added Sebert. 

Sebert said farmers who would like a biosecurity planning kit can call the Center at 717-346-0849 or send an email to Allen Hess at ahess@centerfordairyexcellence.org to request one.

“I think all farmers think biosecurity is part of having a good business plan,” said Sebert.  “So I think many farmers think of biosecurity as one of many things they need to be cognizant about in their operations. The outbreak has brought the need for biosecurity to the forefront and motivated more farms to make sure plans are in place.”

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...


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