Thursday, May 4, 2017

Is Your Organic Milk Really Organic? Which Brands Can You Trust and Which Should You Avoid?

is that milk really organic?

We know it is important to choose organic dairy products, meats and some fruits and vegetables.   As cautious consumers we are told to always look for the official USDA's certified organic seal to ensure quality and ensure we are indeed buying an organic product.  As parents, we are whiling to pay more for certified organic products (sometimes double the price) because we trust the seal and because we know that it means we are not exposing our children to added pesticides, hormones etc.

 However, a recent investigation from the Washington Post uncovered some troubling realities and major failures in the US organic market.

In order for a product to gain, and keep, their USDA organic certification they must meet a rigorous set of standards.  When referring to organic milk this means :  

  • - "organic dairies are required to allow the cows to graze daily throughout the growing season." Cows should thus be grass fed and not confined to barns and a specific percentage of their diet must be organic pasture.  This is important because milk that comes from grass fed cows is different, nutritionally speaking, from milk that comes from cows that are not grass fed (more on this later).
  • - hormones cannot be given to stimulate milk production
  • - The pasture that the cows graze on must be organic (specifically, the land must not treated with prohibited synthetic pesticides for "a period of three years immediately preceding the harvest of the crop"). 

  Organics is a fast growing potentially lucrative industry  (over $40 billion in annual sales)- so who is making sure that what we buy as organic is really and truly organic?  Who is inspecting companies and farms to make sure they comply with these standards? 

Surprisingly, the US Agriculture Department rarely conducts their own inspections. In fact, the compliance and enforcement team at the USDA National Organic Program has all of 9 people....  about 1 inspector for every $4 billion in organic sales a year!!  Instead, they allow farmers to hire and pay for their own 'accredited certifying agent'  to certify them as "USDA ORGANIC".  The farms usually know exactly when the inspectors will arrive, so no surprise (less than 5% to be exact) visits... which begs the question : how honest is this system?

The Washington Post claims that they visited one of the US's largest organic milk dairies (Aurora Organic Dairy who sells organic milk to Walmart and Costco under brand names like Kirkland and Great Value Organic) 8 times last year (visits lasted from 45 minutes to 10 hours) during grazing season and never saw a large number of cows outside grazing in the grass.  Additionally they obtained satellite photos of the farm which showed a similar situation (not a lot of cows grazing) to what they had observed.   The Post had the milk tested and found that on "key indicators of grass feeding the milk matched conventional milk not organic" ( grass fed milk has higher levels of essential fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fat that reduces inflammation in the body and conjugated linoleic acid ).  Finally, the Post contacted the inspectors who explained they visited the dairy after the grazing season- contrary to USDA policy -when cows would not be grazing, and so could not confirm if the cows were indeed let out to graze as required for the USDA Certified Organic standards.  

While representatives from the dairy responded that they did indeed adhere to all standards, the investigation brought up some questionable evidence and adds that  Aurora Organic Dairy is not the only large dairy with questionable compliance.  

In a nutshell, there appears to be a new trend where we are seeing the growth of extremely large dairies, like Aurora, who seem to be falling short of true organic standards and the cost is not only to consumers who are paying large sums for "not-quite organic" milk, but the true victims are the honest smaller dairies who are following the standards (which is much more expensive to do) but can't compete with the larger dairy's cheaper prices.

What to do?
What does this mean for you and your family?  
How can you make sure that the milk you are serving at home is indeed organic?
In general, for dairy products and all products, always get to know your local farmers.  If you visit a local farm, are a member of a local CSA or frequent a local Farmer's Market take the time to get to now your local farmers and talk to them about what they do or don't do on their farms.   Some small farms simply can't afford the USDA organic certification but still follow organic practices.   Hands down this is the best way to truly make sure you are getting what you pay for.   

Last year (2016) the Cornucopia Institute updated their Organic Dairy Scorecard.  In it, you can see how your favorite organic milk (along with many of the nations largest and smaller dairies) rates. 

Overall, smaller private farms and labels were more open and faired better. For those who don't have farmer's markets nearby and rely on store bought organic milk, there are some larger brand names that scored a solid 4 (ie:  Organic Valley, Amish Country Farms, Clover Organic Farms, Straus Family Creamery, 365 and Stonyfield).  Larger dairies related to large retail brands and store brand labels tended to score worse (ie:  Fairway, Publix, Win Dixie, BJ's, Trader Joe's etc). 

(you can see how they come to these scores here )

Here are some related products we thought you might find interesting.  
Please note these are Amazon Affiliate links. I may make a small commission on the sale of an item if you purchase through one of these links. The price of the item is the same for you whether it is an affiliate link or not, and using affiliate links helps me to maintain this website and support my family.

Organic Valley, Organic Whole Milk, 6.75 fl oz (Pack of 12)

Organic Valley, Organic 1% Plain Low Fat Milk, 6.75 oz (Pack of 12)

Dr. Brown's Options Wide Neck Glass Bottles, 2 Pack, Glass, 5 Ounce

Comotomo Baby Bottle, Green, 8 Ounce, 2 Count

GoGlass Glass Baby Bottle 4 oz, Full Silicone Sleeve, 2 Nipples Included, BPA Free (Blue) - Best Feeding Bottles For Preemie, Newborns, Infants, and Toddlers