The organic dairy market is booming, with sales reaching $6 billion last year in the United States alone. Part of the reason is that organic milk comes with a "healthy" halo effect; it is deemed to be a better alternative than conventional milk.
But a recent investigation by The Washington Post found that there's a big difference between buying organic from corporations versus directly from farmers. "Consumers look at that cartoon label on organic milk with a happy cow on green pasture with a red barn, but that's not always the reality," Katherine Paul of the Organic Consumers Association tells the Post. "What we've said all along is that organic milks are not created equal, and your results show that."
What Does "Organic" Mean When It Comes to Milk?
When it comes to milk, the word "organic" promises a handful of things about how the product is sourced. It promises that the cows do not receive growth-producing hormones (like bovine growth hormone), which are administered to produce more milk.
That organic stamp also means your cows don't receive antibiotics, which goes hand in hand with hormones: Cows that are given hormones often need antibiotics to counter the increased odds of developing an infection. The presence of antibiotics in milk can lead to antibiotic failure or resistance in humans.
"Organic" also indicates that the animals spend their time grazing on pasture instead of ingesting feed like corn, grains, food concentrates, supplements, and even animal byproducts. And that's where things get a bit complicated.
"We tested [the milks] chemically, and you can see from the results how much time a cow has been eating pasture, which is what organic cows are supposed to be doing," journalist Peter Whoriskey tells NPR. "And you could see, you know, conventional milk was very low in the grass-fed department. And some of the organic milk, especially ones from very small farms, was quite high. The larger corporate organic milks were sort of in the middle. And there was one large organic producer that was actually almost identical to conventional milk."
How "Organic" Is Your Milk?
So how do you know how organic your milk is? One way is by looking at the labels on your milk carton and knowing which ones add value and which ones are just a marketing sticker.
Rodale's Organic Life reports that Grade A labeling is moot since all milk has to be Grade A. Meanwhile, there's some value to the Animal Welfare Approved label, which guarantees cows are not kept in isolation, calves are not weaned before 12 weeks, and injured animals are treated immediately with an emphasis on herbal remedies.
The USDA "organic" certification is definitely in a gray area. This is problematic since consumers pay more, nearly double, when a product has a "USDA Organic" label slapped on it. According to Whoriskey, the USDA's system to enforce organic milk production is weak. Instead of sending an official inspector, organic farms hire their own inspection certifiers who are unaffiliated with the USDA.
"They come out once a year, and they'll check paperwork," he says. "They might do some other tests. But generally speaking, there's obviously a conflict of interest there because they're your employee, and they're testing you and going to tell you whether or not your milk's organic."
Marjorie Cohn, RD, CDN, and a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, says labels are a good reference but pasteurization methods are also key.
When purchasing organic milk try to find milk that has been pasteurized with methods other than UHT [a type of pasteurization called ultrahigh temperature], lower temperatures of heating at longer periods will preserve more of the nutrient content while still killing off harmful bacteria. The most common type of pasteurization in conventional milk is called High Temperature Short Time (HTST). It consists of heating the milk to a temperature of 161 degrees for 15 to 20 seconds. This method kills the bacteria but the shelf life isn't as long, so you'll need to drink the organic milk treated this way a lot quicker.
The Best Resources for Decoding Your Milk
There are also consumer resources that can shed more light onto the source of milk. One is whereismymilkfrom.com, where people can learn about where their milk came from and the grazing practices of different farms. Another is Cornucopia Institute, which gives out a dairy scorecard.
Do you buy organic milk? What brand do you buy?