Like most other Organic products sold in the United States, Organic milk is regulated by the USDA. Because milk comes from livestock, it’s a much more complicated product to make standards for than produce. Organic milk standards cover not only the milk itself, but the livestock it comes from, the food eaten by the livestock, and the land that animals live and graze on. I’ll go over each of these areas.
Land used for pasture, housing, bedding, and feed must qualify for Organic certification. This means it can’t have any prohibited substances applied for at least 3 years. In addition, Organic livestock operations must manage manure so it doesn’t contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water.
Farmers can either purchase an organic herd or transition a non-organic herd. Transitioning a herd takes a period of one year rather than the three required for land. Farmers are not allowed to continuously transition animals into a distinct organic herd. Farmers are also not allowed to practice tail-docking.
Organic livestock must receive 100% organic feed. They may not receive growth hormones, urea, manure, or mammalian/poultry by-products. Animal fat is an example of this last one. Plastic pellets cannot be included in roughage and calves must be fed Organic milk. In addition, Organic livestock are not allowed to be fed supplements or additives above the amount needed for health and nutrition. This means that sub-therapeutic amounts used to promote growth are prohibited. It’s a common practice that I touched on in a previous post on CAFOs.
Organic livestock may not be given antibiotics or hormones. If an animal is given antibiotics to save its life, it must be segregated from the Organic herd and sold to the non-Organic market. A lonely exception is oxytocin, which is used to aid in animal birth. Prolonged or continuous use is not allowed. Parasiticides, or de-wormers, are allowed in health care emergencies.
Confinement & Grazing
Livestock older than 6 months cannot be confined continuously. They can be confined for periods of milking, as long as they get an average of 30% dry matter intake from pasture. During the grazing season, livestock must be provided pasture for at least 120 days.
Phew! That was a lot of requirements to cover and condense down. Now unlike some other products, the labeling of Organic milk is pretty straightforward, because it is a single-ingredient product. If a container of milk is labeled as Organic, it must contain 100% Organic milk. There are no other ingredients to make up the small portion of conventional substances allowed when there are no Organic substitutes.
But the real questions that most people have are does Organic milk offer any real health benefits and why would I drink it compared to conventional milk? Well, Organic milk usually has a more desirable fatty acid composition than conventional milk, as well as higher levels of alpha-tocopherol and iron. It has lower levels of iodine and selenium. These differences are most commonly attributed to the grazing requirement for Organic milk production, and may offset some of the changes we’ve seen in milk composition over the last few decades.
Aside from nutrition, some choose to buy Organic milk for other purposes. These include environmental reasons like supporting mandatory manure management or animal welfare reasons like encouraging grazing and discouraging tail-docking. They may even be for human health reasons like discouraging the overuse of antibiotics and hormones. This is not an exhaustive list, and I’m sure many more reasons could be added. Comment below if you have one that I didn’t mention.
Now, I do want to touch on questions of enforcement that have come up in the last few years. There have been claims that large Organic dairies don’t truly meet the grazing requirements for Organic milk. I haven’t been able to find any numbers on the amount of unannounced visits made to Organic dairies, but the USDA says that most are in compliance. Inspections typically take place annually, so it can be difficult to verify 120 days of grazing. It’s also true that milk tested from large Organic dairies often have a composition closer to that of conventional milk rather than from high-quality pastured cows.
Where does that leave consumers? As with most food and beverages, there’s some gray area. If you are concerned about buying quality Organic milk, you can check the brands you buy against this scorecard from the Cornucopia Institute. The best thing you can do to find a quality product is to look for transparency. When an organization can tell you about their practices, it means they know what those practices are and that they are consistent. Allowing tours and site visits is also a plus. The more eyes allowed, the more confident an operation is in their compliance. Sometimes you can even taste or smell the difference. It’s good sensory practice, and once you start paying attention and taste-testing, you really can notice small variations.
I hope this helps you navigate the crazy world of food labeling. I’ll let you decide whether any or all of the benefits of Organic milk is worth the higher price, but I’d love to hear your thoughts. Comment below!