Why virologists are asking questions about American milk

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3 min readMay 15, 2024


🥛 The U.S. Department of Agriculture — which oversees all of our food production, including the dairy industry — was created by Abraham Lincoln 162 years ago today. Lincoln nicknamed it the “People’s Department” because at the time over half of U.S. workers were farmers (or people who worked directly with farmers).
Issue #76: a musician’s guide to punctuation, a chaplain’s advice on what not to say after someone dies, and a storytelling tip
Harris Sockel

Last week on Medium, former New York Times health reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. joined virologists across the country in raising questions about the safety of American milk. Since late March, 42 dairy herds across nine states have reported outbreaks of H5N1 bird flu. One person in Texas was diagnosed with the virus (symptoms range from pink eye to pneumonia) after coming into direct contact with a cow.

On Friday, the FDA said that while all of the tests they’ve done on grocery store milk indicate it’s safe to drink, they’re in the midst of running an experiment to double-check that today’s pasteurization process (heating milk to, in most cases, 161 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds) really does kill H5N1 before it can reach store shelves. The Biden administration is also giving dairy farms up to $28,000 (per farm) to help them protect workers and treat sick cows.

“Our national dairy industry is clearly fighting a major epidemic,” McNeil maintains, and he frames this outbreak as a symptom of a larger problem: a struggling private industry that’s hard to regulate and reluctant to go public about its problems. “Whenever a city’s water is perfectly safe but slightly off-color, residents are reassured that, if they’re anxious, they can boil it,” he explains, “But water, unlike milk, is not sold by a powerful private industry.”

What else we’re reading

  • Writer and musician Ben Ulansey disambiguates punctuation marks that a lot of us use interchangeably: commas, colons, semicolons, and emdashes. You can think of each punctuation mark like a type of musical note in the song that is whatever you’re writing. Periods are like whole notes in music — they represent the longest pauses and most significant shifts in an idea.
  • Related to punctuation, may I recommend neuroscientist Adam J Calhoun’s visualizations of punctuation marks in famous novels from the Medium archive (it originally ran in 2016)? “Writing can be beautiful because of the words an author chooses to use,” he writes, “but it can also be beautiful because of the choice of punctuation.”
  • Hospital chaplain Wyatt J. Dagit offers useful advice on what not to say to someone who’s just experienced a loss. Don’t say, “Everything will be okay,” “I know how you feel,” or “She’s in a better place.” Instead, try “I’m sorry you’re going through this” or “Can I get you _____ ?” Better still, Dagitt advises, say nothing. “Don’t offer tired platitudes or truisms. Don’t give advice. Don’t say a damn thing. Just shut up and listen. It’s your presence and not your words that matter.”

Your daily dose of practical wisdom: about storytelling

“What you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to write about an event in your life that made you feel some particular way. And what you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to get the audience to have that same feeling.” — Acclaimed filmmaker Pete Docter in “6 Rules of Great Storytelling (As Told by Pixar)

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Edited and produced by Scott Lamb & Carly Rose Gillis

Questions, feedback, or story suggestions? Email us: tips@medium.com