In Food

Got Organic?: Is Organic Milk Better?

Posted by: on Jan 31, 2013 | 6 Comments

On my last post, Milk it for What it’s Worth, a friend asked if organic milk negates the hormone problem. Not knowing the answer, I thought I’d do a little research this week. Now, my initial reaction is to agree with her that organic milk is better than conventional milk. However, labels and seals do not always mean what we think they should.

What does it mean for milk to be organic?

  • At least 30 percent of the food organic dairy cows eat must be grazed at pasture during a grazing season of at least 120 days;
  • No antibiotics or growth hormones may be used;
  • All feed must be organic, and
  • No meat or poultry by-products can be in the feed.

All of these requirements sound good to me. I like to see cows grazing on actual pasture, consuming their natural diet. It gives me peace of mind to know if I purchase organic milk, I can be assured there are no antibiotics or hormones. I think organic feed is better for the environment and us because it means no synthetic pesticides and often means better practices. And I don’t believe it is safe or natural for cows to eat meat or poultry by-products.

However, there are of course arguments against these practices supporting conventional milk and its safety. Conventional dairy cows that receive antibiotics are not put back into production until after the milk tests negative for any antibiotics. I’m not sure this addresses the overuse of antibiotics and therefore the creation of superbugs. Overuse of antibiotics is probably more of an issue in livestock produced for meat.

The FDA and many scientists say that growth hormones are safe. Europe, among others, bans its use completely. Because of the backlash from consumers, grocery chains announced their intention to no longer carry milk with growth hormones, significantly affecting the market. Last October the Wall Street Journal covered a story on organic milk: the moral of the article was that organic milk was not worth the price increase because hormones given to cows do not affect humans. I was under the impression, it was illegal to label milk “hormone free” or “no rBGH.” However, it appears that has changed in the last few years and conventional milk can indicate no artificial hormones on its label. It seems the landmark case, was in Ohio in 2008. In this case, the court found that milk without rBGH/rBST is safer and of higher quality than milk with and therefore, labels are allowed. If I were purchasing conventional milk, I would look for a label indicating no artificial hormones.

Nevertheless, conventional milk often tests positive for low levels of pesticides. The argument here is that those levels are not high enough to be dangerous. Personally, I disagree. Pesticides build up within our bodies and as they move up the food chain they compound. This means low levels of pesticides can be dangerous (Read Rachel Carson, Silent Spring). Organic ensures synthetic pesticides have not been used.

I think I’ll stick with my original assumption. Organic milk is better. However, organic milk is much more expensive than conventional. I feel fortunate to be able to spend more of my income on food than others can. I figure it’s sort of like health insurance. However, if organic milk is too expensive and you are concerned about artificial hormones (and you won’t be alone), look for milk that says it is not produced with artificial hormones/rBGH/rBST. And when you can, balance your diet out with some organic produce, reducing your intake of pesticides.

6 Comments

  1. Beth
    February 1, 2013

    As the daughter of a former dairy farmer, I find this blog entry quite interesting. And I would like to add my two cents to your observations, if I may, please. First, not all people in the U.S. can truly digest milk. Did you know that of the world population, only those whose decedents come from northern Europe can really digest milk well? That was a surprise fact I learned from a Modern Marvels show on milk. I was quite surprised about that since milk is given in school so much.

    I see more people who buy raw milk and that worries me a bit. Yes, there are certain bacteria that is helpful, but pasteurization kills bacteria that non-farm kids may not be able to process. Having grown up and drank raw milk from little on, my stomach got used to anything that slipped through the filtering process. But I would never advise people who haven’t grown up drinking raw milk to just start. Something to think about.

    Reply
    • Hali
      February 1, 2013

      Very true on both counts. Actually, I studied the raw milk debate in school. I found both sides very interesting. I may get around to a post on it.

      Reply
  2. Beth
    February 1, 2013

    Oh! And one more thing. Did you know that the majority of the dairy production in our local area, and I suspect, the nation as a whole comes from small farms? I find that comforting, because getting a cow on antibiotics is not in the owner’s best interest. They probably would wait to see if the cow gets better rather than taking her out of production. As for growth hormones, who in their right mind would give those to a dairy cow anyway? Most young stock are raised by young stock growers who specialize in that area of farming, and it doesn’t do a thing for the system as a whole. I’d be much more concerned about growth hormones in the production of hogs and steers. Interesting topic. Just speaking from first hand, I guess, since we looked at raising young stock at one time, and growth hormones never came into the discussion at all.

    Reply
    • Hali
      February 1, 2013

      Interestingly, they use the growth hormone to increase milk production. I don’t know the science behind it though.

      Reply
  3. Diane
    February 1, 2013

    Hali, Good post! Did you know that lots of non-organic dairy products are produced from cows that are CAFO (confined animal feeding operations)? We pass several here in NM when we travel, and the stench is terrible. You have to close up windows and recycle AC for miles! Yes, there are some good, small dairy operations here but they make mostly cheese. If you are not already a member, check out the OCA (Organic Consumers Association). Some time ago they did a great article on some of the “organic” dairy products that really were not–stuff that was even sold in our co-op. Keep up the good educational work.

    Reply
  4. Laura
    February 2, 2013

    Thanks for the follow up, Hali. I learn something every time I read your blog entries about food, etc. :)

    Reply

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