Rare bird flu infection nothing to panic over: Texas agriculture commissioner

April 3, 2024

The recent infection of a Texas dairy worker with H5N1 bird flu isn’t cause for panic, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller told The Hill in an interview Wednesday.

The human case of bird flu is only the second confirmed infection in the U.S., and it comes as the virus is spreading among cows in at least five states.

Miller ordered the temporary closure of the Cal-Maine Foods egg production plant in Farwell, Texas, Tuesday due to positive tests for bird flu. The industrial farm will have to “depopulate” nearly 2 million chickens and all eggs under the order — nearly 4 percent of its overall flock. 

Apart from immediate commercial losses, Miller expressed confidence in the government’s preparedness and the public’s safety. 

“Consumer message is ‘Hey, we don’t think this is a big deal, 1 out of 300 million plus [people] has contracted it, the symptoms are very mild — products are safe, it’s not going to create a wide shortage, supplies are uninterrupted,” Miller said. 

“I just don’t think there’s anything for the public to panic over; I don’t think the farmers should panic either,” he added.

Cal-Maine Foods is one of Texas’s largest poultry farms. Miller called the development “devastating” for the company in his original statement. The Hill reached out to the company for comment.

“A chicken might be worth 3 bucks a piece — you figure a week’s worth of production there with millions of hens, they lay millions of eggs every week. It adds up quick,” Miller said Wednesday.

But he said the plant may reopen sooner than people expect. 

“Depending on how they dispose of the birds, how they get that facility cleaned up and disinfected, they could get that facility up and running within 30 days,” he said. 

It remains unclear how the flu is being passed from chickens to cows or whether it’s being transmitted between cattle. Miller said Cal-Maine had not recently moved portions of its flock for slaughter.

Health officials are on guard for mutations in the virus that could threaten humans, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has downplayed concerns of a larger pandemic threat.

“This infection does not change the H5N1 bird flu human health risk assessment for the U.S. general public, which CDC considers to be low,” the CDC said earlier this week.

Miller expressed confidence in the CDC, which he said has “stockpiles for human vaccines for bird flu that are good to go.” 

In both the case of the dairy worker, and the first case of human bird flu in the U.S. in 2022, direct prolonged exposure in a livestock processing setting was the cause, and those infected walked away with minor symptoms and fully recovered. 

“This dairy hand, we don’t know he got it from the cows. But we do know his symptoms were very mild. Most of those guys [at the dairy facility] are physically fit; it’s demanding work,” Miller said.

“That doesn’t mean an elderly person’s symptoms would be mild, they could be deadly. We need to take every precaution.”

The CDC has recommended people practice good hygiene, avoid sick or dead animals, animal fecal matter and consumption of untreated or uncooked animal products like raw milk or raw eggs.