New Report Makes Dairy Shopping Easy

organic dairy

Story at-a-glance -

  • Many dairy cartons depict idyllic scenes of black and white cows grazing on rolling hills, when in reality the milk comes from cows raised on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)
  • Even many organic dairy brands are produced using CAFO-style farming practices
  • The Cornucopia Institute has made it easier to shop for high-quality dairy with the release of their 2018 Organic Dairy Report and Scorecard
  • It represents an update from their 2008 version and will help you choose dairy from organic sources using only the best organic and grass fed farming practices and ethics

By Dr. Mercola

When it comes to choosing high-quality dairy, you can’t always judge a book by its cover. Many dairy cartons depict idyllic scenes of black and white cows grazing on rolling hills, when in reality the milk comes from cows raised on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Even many organic dairy brands are guilty of this type of deceit.

Where your milk and other dairy products come from matters, as how the cows are raised affects the nutritional quality, not to mention the taste, of the milk. There are environmental, ethical and public health implications, too, with dairy CAFOs representing some of the biggest polluters on the planet.

So, even though most dairy brands would have you believe that their products are made with milk from cows that spend their days enjoying the sun and grass, most of the milk comes from corporate farms with more than 1,000 cows (and some with 15,000 or more).

In fact, more than half of U.S. milk is produced by just 3 percent of U.S. dairies.1 The Cornucopia Institute, a public interest group supporting sustainable and organic agriculture, has made it easier to shop for high-quality dairy with the release of their 2018 Organic Dairy Report and Scorecard.2

It represents an update from their 2008 version and will help you choose dairy from organic sources using only the best organic farming practices and ethics.

Many Organic Dairies Are CAFOs in Disguise

In their report, “The Industrialization of Organic Dairy,” the Cornucopia Institute details the steady progression of organic dairy into factory farms that use suspect practices to produce their milk. Despite federal organic regulations that require, for instance, pasturing ruminants, there’s a wide range of interpretation that goes on in the industry.

Whereas some organic producers go way beyond the requirement by allowing their cows to graze on pasture most of the time, and feeding no grain at all, others use typical CAFO practices, like feeding large amounts of genetically engineered (GE) grain and keeping cows in confinement. How can a farm that raises cows on pasture, and one that rarely does, both qualify for the same organic seal?

The problem lies with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which delegates the interpretation of the standards to certification agencies that are hired by individual farms.

“Many of the largest certifiers (California Certified Organic Farmers, Quality Assurance International, Oregon Tilth and others) have adopted the most liberal interpretations of the organic standards. Some of these lax interpretations have been challenged as illegal,” according to Cornucopia.3

It’s revealing that, according to the report, Texas produces 1.4 times more organic milk than Wisconsin (America’s Dairyland), even though there are only six organic producers in the state — compared to the 453 in Wisconsin. The organic industry is valued at about $47 billion in the U.S., and industrial organic dairies are eager to gain their share.

Organic milk sales have more than tripled from 2007 to 2015, even as sales of conventional milk declined. Meanwhile, the number of organic cows rose by 13 percent from 2008 to 2015, but the amount of organic milk products produced rose by 35 percent.4

The Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA) attributed some of the increase to “better practices,” but others, including an investigation by The Washington Post, suggest skimping on organic practices may be a better description.5

Even NODPA noted the reason behind the large jump is “the increase in those mostly larger herds where the cows are fed in the barn instead of going out to pasture as the organic regulations require.”6 The increased demand hasn’t been the panacea for organic family farms as you might suspect, because it’s created an organic milk surplus that has actually reduced prices. According to the Cornucopia Institute:7

“[A] current surplus of organic milk, primarily driven by industrial sources, is now putting dramatic downward pressure on farm-gate prices. This downward pressure is also, in some cases, placing farmers on quotas that can create profound economic stress.

This industrial organic milk not only undermines the livelihoods of family-scale farms, it also damages authentic organic producers by sowing the seeds of distrust among consumers. If consumers are unable to trust the organic label, the market security that has allowed ethical farmers to bring in a living wage could disappear.”

USDA Not Doing Enough to Protect the Integrity of the Organic Label

Because farmers hire their own inspection agencies to comply with USDA rules, it’s a classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse. Even when violations are found, they typically amount to only a slap on the wrist in terms of punishment.

In 2007, for instance, while the USDA sanctioned Aurora Organic Dairy for willfully violating organic standards, the farm was allowed to continue operating after a settlement was reached.8

In 2017, when The Washington Post visited Aurora Organic Dairy, a massive industrial farm with 15,000 cows that has provided organic store brands to corporations like Walmart, Target and Costco, a few problems were evident right off the bat.

The cows are supposed to have access to pasture for the entire grazing season, but the investigation revealed 90 percent were kept on feedlots, not pasture, at any given time. The Post even had samples of Aurora’s organic milk tested for “a key indicator of grass-feeding” (its fatty acid profile), which revealed the milk matched conventional, not organic milk.

Inspectors had visited the farm, but in November, a time outside of the grazing season, which means they had no way of knowing whether the dairy’s grazing habits met the organic requirement. Inspecting during this time represents a breach to the USDA’s inspection policy. However, in September 2017, the USDA closed the investigation into the dairy, stating it was in compliance with organic rules.9

“Unfortunately, the federal agency [USDA] is largely silent on the subject [of the industrialization of organic dairy],” Cornucopia noted.

“Most serious allegations of improprieties are redirected by the USDA for investigation to the organic certifiers that, in some cases, appear to be co-conspirators in violations of the organic standards. In other cases, the USDA and certifiers suggest that serious violations are an aberration in the industry.”10

Why Choose Real Grass Fed Organic Dairy?

There’s good reason to seek out organic dairy that is truly grass fed and raised according to the highest standards. Milk from cows raised primarily on pasture has been shown to be higher in many nutrients, including vitamin E, beta-carotene and the healthy fats omega-3 and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).11

The improved fatty acid profile in grass fed organic milk and dairy products brings the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio to a near 1-to-1, compared to 5.7-to-1 in conventional whole milk. This is important, since the majority of Americans eat 10 to 15 times the amount of omega-6s compared to what they eat in omega-3s.12

“Because of often high per‐capita dairy consumption relative to most other sources of omega‐3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid, these differences in grassmilk [grass fed milk] can help restore a historical balance of fatty acids and potentially reduce the risk of cardiovascular and other metabolic diseases,” researchers noted.13

On an environmental level, while CAFOs contribute to the spread of antibiotic-resistant disease and produce massive amounts of waste that is polluting waterways around the globe, raising animals on pasture using rotational or regenerative grazing approaches can increase soil organic matter, soil fertility and water-holding capacity, while naturally reducing erosion and encouraging crop diversity.

Unfortunately, as farmers increasingly plant mostly wheat, rice, soy and corn (including for CAFO animal feed), more than 75 percent of crop genetic diversity has disappeared since the 1900s, leaving fields increasingly vulnerable to pests, disease and drought.14

The Union of Concerned Scientists, which was among the first to compare fat levels in conventional beef and dairy with grass fed varieties, also touted the merits of grass fed foods:15

“Raising cattle on pasture lessens environmental damage, improves animal health and reduces antibiotic use. Over the past decade, numerous scientific studies have shown that the meat and milk from pasture-raised animals are higher in fats that may confer health benefits on humans.”

The Cornucopia Institute’s Organic Dairy Scorecard

There are a few ways to determine the quality of your organic dairy, one being to develop a relationship with a trusted farmer producing grass fed milk. If you don’t know any farmers in your area, or live in an urban location, farmers markets can be a close second.

Beyond that, if you’ll be buying your dairy in a grocery store, be sure to consult with the Cornucopia Institute’s Organic Dairy Scorecard before you buy. The scorecard rates more than 160 dairies based on practices such as:

  • The percentage of grass in a cow’s diet
  • How much pasture is available for grazing
  • The level of control a brand has over its milk supply
  • How the farmer suppliers expand their milk herd (do they bring in conventional or organic cows?)

The dairies are then given a ranking of one to five cows, with five being the best (there are also zero-cow rated companies, which were not willing to participate in Cornucopia’s research):

  • Five cows are the “gold standard” in dairy production, representing small-to-medium scale family farms in which pasture and forage make up the majority, and sometimes 100 percent of the animals’ feed. Most of these brands go beyond organic standards and are sold through farmers markets, food coops and independently owned food stores.
  • Four cows are rated “excellent” with a commitment to grazing and may also get certified organic feed from outside sources. If the brand gets milk from multiple farms, management maintains close oversight and control over the farming practices.
  • Three cows are still rated “very good,” and they comply with minimum USDA standards, including the minimum pasture requirement. If replacement animals are purchased, they may come from conventional sources where they were fed antibiotics and/or GE grains.
  • Two cows means the brand is “fair” with unclear compliance to federal organic standards. “Private-label dairy products often fall into this category because they may be getting all, or some, of their milk from factory-farm sources. These brands may have a lack of control over their milk supply due to reduced oversight at the farms that supply their milk,” according to Cornucopia.
  • One cow ratings are given to industrial-scale dairy operations that “universally skirt or misrepresent the pasture requirements” and often have thousands of cows on the farm. “Generally, private-label products fall into this category because of their lack of transparency and the fact that most get some of their milk from factory-farm sources,” Cornucopia stated.

The Yogurt Scorecard Reveals the Truth About ‘Healthy’ Yogurt

You may recognize many of the same brands from Cornucopia’s Organic Dairy Scorecard on their also highly-recommended Yogurt Scorecard. Updated in July 2018, in addition to assessing milk quality, the yogurts are ranked based on total sugar and whether they have additives like preservatives, stabilizers, thickeners, artificial colors and flavors, and carrageenan.

As you’ll see if you peruse the scorecard, most commercial yogurts are so full of sugar and other additives that they’re far from health foods. However, it’s easy to make your own healthy homemade yogurt; all you need is raw, organic grass fed milk and a yogurt starter culture.

In addition to consulting with the Cornucopia Institute’s dairy scorecards, you can also identify high-quality dairy by looking for the American Grassfed Association (AGA) logo. The standard allows for greater transparency and conformity16 and is intended to ensure the humane treatment of animals and meet consumer expectations about grass fed dairy, while being feasible for small farmers to achieve.

An AGA logo on a product lets you know the animals were fed a lifetime diet of 100 percent forage, were raised on pasture (not in confinement) and were not treated with hormones or antibiotics.17 I strongly encourage you to seek out AGA-certified dairy products as they become available and avoid supporting industrial organic brands masquerading as the real thing.