Now: with more USDA regulation! The shocking truth about your "organic" milk/dairy products

The other day, after I wrote about how non-organic milk is a terrible thing to put into your body (among other things), I was patting myself on the back for never having even looked at a non-organic carton of milk for years. But then when I got out the gallon of organic, non-RBGH milk to go with my chocolate chip cookie (can't seem to cut those out of my otherwise healthy diet...), I noticed some fine print on the bottom of the label that I've never bothered to read before: "*Our milk is made from cows not treated with rBGH. The FDA has said there is no significant difference between milk from cows treated with rBGH and untreated cows. No test can now distinguish between milk from treated and untreated cows." I suddenly shivered. Or maybe that was from standing in front of the open fridge. Whether I was having a paranoid reaction or not, I felt that the manufacturer was hinting subtly, or not-so-subtly, at a possible deception that they (or other "organic milk" manufacturers) may or may not be engaging in.

This is my translation of each sentence:
1) Our milk is made from cows not treated with rBGH.  = Assuming 365 Organic (Whole Foods' private organic label) is not outright lying in their first statement, their cows are not treated with rBGH, which implies other cows might be.
2) The FDA has said there is no significant difference between milk from cows treated with rBGH and untreated cows. = The FDA  "concluded that rBGH presents no increased health risk to consumers" [and approved it for use in 1993].  However, this declaration proved highly controversial, and opponents of the drug argued that the effects of rBGH were never properly assessed. In 1998, a study by Canada's equivalent of the FDA, Health Canada, recommended that the studies be replicated before rBGH would be approved in Canada.  However, as of today, the European Union, Japan, Australia and Canada have all banned the use of rBGH due to animal and human health concerns.
3) No test can now distinguish between milk from treated and untreated cows. = Irrespective of whether or not rBGH has any effect on humans, as a human, there's no definitive way of being assured you're drinking rBGH-free milk aside from trusting that your milk manufacturer is telling the truth. Apparently, rBGH-positive [if you will] cows don't test positive.

My interest was piqued enough to investigate this milk controversy further, and ah-HA, my timing was right-on! This morning, a very timely news report hit my twitter feed: "New USDA Rules Establish Strong Organic Standards for Dairy Cows and Other Livestock."

Apparently, the family farms of America have been lobbying the government for over 10 years to institute more stringent regulations around the grazing and pasturing of dairy cows and other livestock. Why? Because a number of mega-dairies, or illegitimate factory farms, who have blatantly abused the "organic" label by confining thousands of animals in feed lots and barns are able to produce very cheap organically-labeled milk against which the ethical, small-production family farms can't compete.

Although there have been a number of investigations into the alleged violations of organic livestock management practices on many of the 20 largest factory farm facilities, the biggest scandal centered around one investigation in which the regulators found “willful” violations of 14 organic regulations on factory farms operated by Aurora Dairy, a $100+ million company based in Colorado, which produces private-label, store brand milk for Wal-Mart, Costco and large grocery chains, as well as investigations into alleged improprieties by the largest organic milk producer in the country, Horizon Organic (by Dean Foods).

The new regulations "...require that dairy cows and other ruminants be out on pasture for the entire growing season, but for not less than 120 days. It also requires that the animals receive at least 30% of their feed, or dry matter intake (DMI), from pasturing. In addition, organic livestock will be required to have access to the outdoors year-round..." Read more here. 

Most importantly, “These minimum benchmarks will assure consumers that industrial-scale dairies don’t just create the ‘illusion’ of grazing and continue producing illegitimate organic milk.”

The basic lesson here is: you get what you pay for.  If your organic milk, cheese, yogurt or other dairy product was: "...such a great deal! As cheap as or almost as cheap as regular" it is highly likely that it was not in fact, organic.

The good news is that "over 90% of all name brand organic dairy products are produced with high integrity."  Cornucopia Institute, the farm policy research group representing family farms, has a consistently updated "brand scorecard" for all of the organic labels, in which each brand is given a score based on the aggregation of detailed ratings such as disclosure of information, amount of time cows are spent on pasture, antibiotics used, hormones used, oversight and processing.

I'm happy to report that Whole Foods 365 Organic brand gets a "4 Cows" rating or "Excellent" as determined by the Cornucopia Institute. Notably, with respect to Whole Foods' private-label brand as compared to other brands (e.g., Wal-Mart, Costco, others): "It is impressive that over 90% of all name-brand organic dairy marketers fully participated in the Cornucopia research study permitting their customers to understand how their products are produced. Unfortunately, 0% of private-label marketers (store brands) were initially willing to participate. Whole Foods Market should be applauded as the first retailer willing to be transparent with their private-label products."

To see how your favorite brand of organic milk fares, simply point your mouse at Cornucopia Institute's BRAND SCORECARD and scan the list: it's organized from top rated producers to the lowest, with additional details. In addition, you can search (Control-F, or Find) for brand(s) carried in your local store.

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  1. Amy,
    Thank you for this informative article.
    I feel I have a much better understanding of
    the confusion surrounding milk and the environment as a result. I am also made aware of the plight of the poor cows that are made to suffer for their gift.

  2. Have you seen the documentary, "The Corporation?" It's a must see if you haven't and talks a lot about tainted milk.

  3. Thank you, both, for your comments. There is so much to discuss with respect to the "agro-farming industrial complex" and I intend on doing so regularly! I did indeed see "The Corporation" - I didn't necessarily plan it, but within a short timespan, I watched "King Corn," "Food Inc." "Who Killed The Electric Car" and "The Corporation." I find them all illuminating (and disturbing) - yet inspired me to take action,and really re-examine my choices. Thanks!!

  4. I am deeply grateful to find this post on organic milk, and just how organic it may be, especially in view of the new regulations. It is bloggers like you who will help to keep the pressure on to assure the USDA follows through and stops the profiteers cashing in on the organic movement. We also need to watch for loopholes through which, doubtlessly, Big Organic(not) Dairies will try to float their cows.

  5. Thanks for the post Amy, We need better information, and are seldom provided it.
    I love the way you broke this down and relayed misinformation into understanding.
    I will use the thinking as I tackle my tough questions. Your logic is good.

  6. Kathryn and Renee, Thank you both so much for taking the time to stop by my blog and comment. Your words are SO appreciated! I am truly heartened and inspired by your comments! As I continue to educate myself, I hope I continue to inform, inspire and educate others too. I look forward to more discussions!