If Your Organic Milk Really “Organic”?

| May 13, 2017

We’ve discussed the pitfalls of milk and dairy in past articles. Milk isn’t nearly the health food that it’s been advertised as for decades—it’s decidedly not responsible for building strong bones, and it carries a host of health risks (including bone mass loss, the very condition it supposedly helps prevent).[1]

Despite these warnings, milk consumption is still widespread (though it has dropped by 25% since the 1970s).[2] A small percentage of milk drinkers have converted to raw, unpasteurized milk, which seems to lack many of the health risks of pasteurized milk. But raw milk is still very difficult to obtain (or even illegal) in most places, so most health-conscious milk lovers have had to settle for organic, pasteurized milk.

Organic milk is certainly a step up from conventional milk. While it lacks the health profile that only comes from living, unpasteurized milk, it also lacks the toxins with which conventional milk is saturated.

Conventional, non-organic milk is often contaminated with synthetic hormones, pharmaceuticals and pesticides

Independent testing has confirmed that conventional milk is often contaminated with synthetic hormones, antibiotics (as well as a range of other pharmaceuticals), pesticides, and even radionuclides. You can read this article for more information on the dangers lurking in conventional milk.

Many take refuge in the “USDA Organic” label, believing that it certifies their milk as healthy. But here’s another glaring problem: not all “organic” milk is truly organic.

Profit over integrity: how organic standards are compromised

There’s a common image that many people hold in their minds when they think of organic dairy farms: bright green pastures, and happy cows with plenty of space to roam. Consumers often pay up to twice as much for milk with the “USDA Organic” seal of approval, in order to rest assured that their milk isn’t sourced under inhumane, unsanitary conditions: no cages and feedlots, no chemicals, proper grazing.

The organic dairy market has grown rapidly in recent years—sales amounted to $6 billion last year. This lucrative opportunity has drawn large agribusiness companies into the market, and according to some news sources and researchers, they’re not exactly playing by the rules of organic milk production.

Giant dairy complexes have sprung up, especially across the Southwest. Satellite images of these farms, such as the Aurora Organic Dairy complex in Greeley, Colorado, reveal just the picture that organic consumers expect: grassy fields dotted with hundreds of munching cows.

There’s just one problem, though: giant farms like Aurora are home to tens of thousands of cows, not hundreds. Correspondents from the Washington Post suspected that the complex was not adhering to organic grazing standards, so they looked deeper.

Sure enough, they were never able to confirm that more than a couple hundred token cows were being allowed outside to graze at a time—despite the fact that organic certification requires that all cows are allowed to graze every day. The milk produced by grass-fed cows is radically different (and much healthier) than milk produced by cows fed grain in confined feedlots.

Aurora Organic Dairy obviously denied the allegation that their cows aren’t grass-fed according to organic standards. Unconvinced, the Washington Post ran tests on the complex’s milk, and found that its chemical profile matched conventional, grain-fed milk rather than organic, grass-fed milk.

When they looked into how these malpractices could have slipped by USDA inspectors, they found that Aurora Organic Dairy’s inspector visited during November, when no grazing was happening anyway. This is a clear breach of USDA inspection policy, which requires that inspectors physically see all the farm’s cows grazing.

This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. After all, Aurora Organic Dairy and similar complexes supply massive chain stores like Wal-Mart. These businesses have always been more interested in efficiency and profit over quality and integrity—why should things be any different with organic dairy products?

Half of the organic milk sold in the U.S. is coming from very large factory farms that have no intention of living up to organic principles

How to ensure you’re drinking organic milk

The USDA Organic certification is a step in the right direction—before 2000, there wasn’t even a set code of regulations, and any supplier with the right story could convince consumers that their dairy products were organic. It’s clear, however, that the USDA can’t protect us entirely.

We must take some responsibility for doing our homework before buying milk products. If possible, stick with small, local farms, the quality and integrity of which you can easily verify. If buying from large dairy suppliers, consult consumer advocacy firms like the Cornucopia Institute.

Their research is rather frightening. One of their representatives, Mark Kastel, reports that “about half of the organic milk sold in the U.S. is coming from very large factory farms that have no intention of living up to organic principles.”

To separate the good from the bad, they publish comprehensive reports on their website. Brands like Trader Joes, Kirkland Signature (Costco’s private label brand), Horizon, and many other “organic” providers receive abysmal ratings, while companies like Organic Valley and Maple Hill Creamery are in the clear.

If you choose to continue drinking milk, and feel that going organic is a safer and more humane choice, be sure to vet your supplier with this helpful list before buying.



[1] http://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g6015

[2] http://www.dairyreporter.com/Commodities/Why-does-the-US-continue-to-drink-less-milk

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