Organic Milk: Is the Grass Greener on the Other Side?

By Palliser, Janna | Science Scope, April-May 2011 | Go to article overview

Organic Milk: Is the Grass Greener on the Other Side?


Palliser, Janna, Science Scope


Recently, I met someone who works at a local dairy. This dairy sells milk in those lovely old-fashioned glass bottles--but it's not organic. So I asked the dairy employee if his employer had considered offering organic milk, as well. (I prefer organic foods when available.) He told me that the owner refuses to go organic because to produce certified-organic milk, the dairy would have to raise its prices by a dollar per half gallon. The dairy sources milk from small, local family farms whose cows are well cared for and not given hormones or antibiotics, but the milk they produce cannot be considered organic because the animals are fed nonorganic food.

This got me thinking about organic milk--how is it different and is it worth the extra cost?

What does it mean to be organic?

To be organic, dairy farmers must use organic fertilizer and organic pesticides, and the cows are not given supplemental hormones or antibiotics--that is, the milk must be produced without chemicals, hormones, or antibiotics (Hannon 2009).

According to the Organic Trade Association, "Organic refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed. It includes a system of production, processing, distribution, and sales that assures consumers that the products maintain the organic integrity that begins on the farm" (OTA a). This system, which is governed by strict government standards, requires that products bearing the organic label adhere to the following guidelines:

* Organic products must be grown and processed without the use of synthetic pesticides and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers.

* Organic livestock must be raised without the use of antibiotics or artificial growth hormones.

They must also have access to pasture for at least 120 days per year.

* Organic regulations allow a limited number of pesticides and fertilizers for restricted use. These substances must undergo strict review, including an evaluation of their environmental impact and their impact on human health, in order to be used in organic production (OTA b).

* Organic food is processed with no artificial colors or flavorings, artificial preservatives, irradiated products or ingredients, genetically modified ingredients (GMOs), or other excluded practices such as sewage sludge or irradiation (OTA a; OTA d).

Organic certification requirements

1. Companies must submit an Organic Systems Plan: a detailed application outlining the nature of their operation, the production/handling processes they use, and the products they produce.

2. Certifiers perform announced and unannounced onsite inspections to check compliance with the National Organic Program. They compare companies' Organic Systems Plans to practices and procedures that are followed on site.

3. Certifiers audit companies' records (i.e., purchases, inputs, ingredients), tracing products from their starting ingredients to their final stages of processing/production.

4. Companies are issued an official certificate affirming their organic certification" (OTA c).

Production of cow's milk

In 2009, there were 65,000 milk-cow operations, 189,320 million pounds of milk were produced, and dairy-cow inventory totaled 9.2 million in the United States. In general, larger milk operations have increased, while smaller operations have decreased. Production per cow has been increasing, as slower-producing cows are culled and inefficient procedures are eliminated. California, Wisconsin, and New York are the top milk-producing states (USDA 2010) (see Figure 1).

The majority of organic-dairy brands are produced by small farming operations, though it is estimated that corporate operations hold 30%-40% of the market share of organic milk in the United States (Chandhoke 2010).

The female dairy cow: The basics

The gestation period for the female cow is nine months, and the period of lactation, or milk production, is 305 days. …

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