Can You Trust Meat and Dairy?

It depends.

Can You Trust Meat and Dairy?
Photo by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash

As we prepare for another pandemic, we're facing a new avenue of threats. While many viruses spread mainly through the air, we may have underestimated fomites and foodborne transmission. Viruses like H5N1 bird flu, and even Covid, can infect our food products. It's worth talking about.


I've still been disinfecting my groceries with a UV-C light. I've got a table. I got some 2x2s and screwed them to the wall so I could put a curtain over the table. (You don't want to expose yourself to UVC rays). It's not perfect, but it's better than nothing. If you want to make a UV-C decontamination box, this 2020 article from Springer Nature explains how.

A 2023 study in The Lancet found that it's possible for Covid and other viruses to spread through surfaces. It's less efficient. It happens less often. It takes a larger amount of virus, but it can still happen. More importantly, virus on surfaces can wind up in the air again.

Here's the standard advice: You should cook all meat to 165F degrees and use a food thermometer to ensure the internal temperature. Refrigeration and freezing alone won't kill H5N1 or other viruses.

How long does the flu last on surfaces?

A 2016 study in Applied and Environmental Microbiology found that H1N1 can last up to seven days on hard surfaces like stainless steel. Many different viruses last on hard surfaces anywhere from a few days to a week or more. They last a day or two on porous surfaces like cardboard and carpet. According to a 2020 article in New Scientist, viruses like Covid can survive up to 17 days on hard surfaces. A 2021 study in Pathogens found that Covid can last up to 21 days on a variety of surfaces during winter months.

So can many viruses.

The more infectious a virus becomes, the less it takes to infect you, regardless of whether it's via aerosols or surfaces.

How long can the flu last in meat?

A 2022 study in The Lancet found that various strains of highly pathogenic bird flu can survive in raw poultry for up to nine days at -20C degrees and up to four days at 25C degrees. But a 2022 study in Emerging Infectious Diseases found that H5N1 can last longer than most other flu viruses, up 24-26 hours on plastic surfaces and 3-4.5 hours on human skin. Fortunately, disinfectants with 40 percent alcohol solution killed H5N1 and other flu viruses on surfaces and skin within 15 seconds.

On a related note, Covid can survive in raw fish meat (including salmon) for up to eight days at 4C degrees and two days at 25C degrees.

A 2017 study in Applied and Environmental Microbiology found that "tissue type could strongly affect viral survival." This study found that H5N1 can survive in muscle tissue (meat) for 100 to 160 days at 4C degrees and 8-14 days at 20C degrees. The virus can survive longer in feathers, up to 240 days at 4C degrees. The authors review previous studies that found H7N1 virus can survive for 135 days in muscle tissue at 4C degrees. Other studies of similar viruses found survival lengths of 40-81 days in poultry meat at 0C degrees, 11 to 14 days at 10C degrees, and 2-3 days at 20C degrees.

How long can a virus survive in milk or cheese?

It's complicated. A 2016 article in Frontiers in Bioengineering found that tick-borne viruses can survive for several days in unpasteurized milk from cattle and goats. High temperature, short time pasteurization of 72C for 15 seconds killed the virus. However, a 2020 study in Food and Environmental Virology found that "a small amount" of tick-borne encephalitis can survive in goat cheese and milk for 5-10 days regardless of pasteurization. A higher viral load increased the survival time up to 25 days. Only pasteurization and salt treatment made goat milk and cheese safe to eat. So, there's that.

What about ice cream?

Well, it's established that freezing viruses doesn't usually kill them. Any ice cream or dairy product you buy is only as safe as the pasteurization process. As we've seen lately, if pasteurization isn't done properly then small amounts of virus survive. Is it enough to make you sick? That depends on the particular strain of the particular virus. You know, they mutate. Health agencies have found ice cream contaminated with Covid. Last year, a listeria outbreak in milkshakes killed three people in Washington.

Here's what we know for sure:

Several different types of viruses can survive in meat and dairy products for several days, and even months in some situations. If you want to consume those products, you have to trust the pasteurization process. You also have to trust the USDA and FDA, who insist they're constantly inspecting our food. But as we keep seeing, they also constantly drop the ball, and they're not working especially hard to track bird flu (or anything) in cattle right now.

If you want to reduce your risk to zero, then you should probably cut out meat and dairy altogether. Honestly, I think we're eventually going to wind up in a situation where they're either in short supply or not safe to eat, ever. The cattle and poultry industries will become increasingly desperate to offset their losses to disease and extreme heat by cutting corners. We already know the CEOs in charge of most industries regard safety as a waste. They're always looking for ways to skirt the regulations they can't dismantle through lobbying.

If you want to eat meat, you're going to have to run your kitchen like a biohazard lab. Get a meat thermometer (or two). Cook it thoroughly. Disinfect your kitchen every time you make food.

You know you're going to spill stuff.

If you want dairy, get ultra-pasteurized or UHT milk. Get hard, pasteurized, salted cheeses that are aged for several months, preferably a year or longer. I wouldn't go near soft cheeses anymore. Also: You can find plant-based milk, ice cream, cheese, and sour cream. I've been eating them for a while.

They taste just fine.


Stability of a Tick-Borne Flavivirus in Milk
The tick-borne flaviviruses (TBFV) occur worldwide and the tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBEV) members of the group often cause severe, debilitating neurological disease in humans. Although the primary route of infection is through the bite of an infected tick, alimentary infection through the consumption of TBEV-contaminated dairy products is also well-documented and is responsible for some disease in endemic areas. Experimental infection of goats, cattle, and sheep with TBEV shows that the virus can be excreted in the milk of infected animals. Additionally, the virus remains infectious after exposure to low pH levels, similar to those found in the stomach. To evaluate the survival of virus in milk, we studied the stability of the BSL-2 TBFV, Langat virus, in unpasteurized goat milk over time and after different thermal treatments. Virus was stable in milk maintained under refrigeration conditions; however, there was a marked reduction in virus titer after incubation at room temperature. High temperature, short time pasteurization protocols completely inactivated the virus. Interestingly, simulation of a typical thermal regime utilized for cheese did not completely inactivate the virus in milk. These findings stress the importance of proper milk handling and pasteurization processes in areas endemic for TBEV.
Fomite Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and Its Contributing Factors
Fomite Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and Its Contributing Factors
Environmental Stability of SARS-CoV-2 on Different Types of Surfaces under Indoor and Seasonal Climate Conditions
Transmission of severe acute respiratory coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) mainly occurs through direct contact with an infected person via droplets. A potential role of contaminated surfaces in SARS-CoV-2 transmission has been suggested since the virus has…

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