How Organic Is Your Milk?

©. Aurora Dairy

Organic is supposed to mean cows can graze daily during growing season, but an investigative report suggests big dairies aren't doing enough of that.

Your favorite organic milk brand may not be as organic as you think. An investigative report by the Washington Post has raised some disturbing questions about how organic regulations are enforced on many dairy farms, particularly large ones, across the United States.

When reporters visited Aurora Organic Dairy, a supplier to Walmart and Costco, several times over the past year, they found little evidence of grazing cattle, despite the fact that grazing is a key component of organic dairy.

“Aurora said its animals were out on pasture day and night, but during most Post visits the number of cows seen on pasture numbered only in the hundreds. At no point was any more than 10 percent of the herd out. A high-resolution satellite photo taken in mid-July by Digital Globe, a space imagery vendor, shows a typical situation — only a few hundred on pasture [out of 15,000].”

When the Post took various samples of organic milk to be tested blindly in a lab, Aurora’s milk ranked close to conventional milk, with low levels of conjugated linoleic acid (which is supposed to be high in grass-fed cows) and high levels of linoleic acid (usually low in grass-fed cows).

Finally, the Post asked Aurora’s inspectors about the amount of time cows spend grazing. It turned out they didn’t know because they had visited the dairy in November, after grazing season was finished. (It runs from early spring to first frost.) This is strange because, as Miles McEvoy, head of the National Organic Program at the USDA, pointed out, the grazing requirement is “a critical compliance component of an organic livestock operation.” The Post writes:

“That means that during the annual audit, inspectors would not have seen whether the cows were grazing as required, a breach of USDA inspection policy.”

McEvoy himself should answer some questions about the USDA’s approach to organic certification. Apparently, its inspections are done by third-party companies that are hired privately by dairies from a list provided by the USDA. Only 5 percent of inspector visits are unannounced, with all others planned well in advance. The USDA visits the third-party inspection outfits every 2.5 years. While this system may save money, it seems excessively frugal:

“The compliance and enforcement team at the USDA National Organic Program has nine people — one for every $4 billion in sales.”

Aside from questionable enforcement, the scaling up of organic production is putting smaller dairies out of business. Going organic and maintaining certification is financially challenging for farmers. The milk may cost more, but it requires more land to graze cattle, and grass-fed cows have lower milk yields than grain-fed. It makes it even harder when the big players aren’t following the rules.

If organic dairy is a priority in your household, then the best option is to source it from a small, local dairy with transparent practices and visible fields of grazing cattle. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your supplier and ask tough questions.