By Brad Tuttle
May 4, 2017

A new investigation by the Washington Post may have you questioning the value of some organic milk brands, and what the “organic” label actually means—because some big dairy farmers might not be living up to their end of the bargain.

Tests conducted on the behalf of the Post indicate that the acid levels of many organic milk producers—including brands like Horizon and Organic Valley—are significantly different than non-organic counterparts. To be certified organic, milk must come from cows that graze instead of being stuck in cramped shelters feeding on corn. If cows are grass-fed, their milk should contain elevated levels of certain acids (conjugated linoleic acid, alpha-linoleic acid), and lower levels of another acid (linoleic acid) compared to conventional milk.

The one anomaly in the tests was Colorado’s Aurora Organic Dairy, which produces milk sold under many retailer labels, including the Great Value organic brand at Walmart. Its acid levels were much more similar to conventional milks than other major organic milk brands. Post reporters also wrote that “signs of grazing were sparse, at best” for the farm’s 15,000+ cows during their visits to Aurora last year, and that “at no point was any more than 10 percent of the herd out” feeding on grasses.

Shoppers pay a premium for USDA-certified organic milk—the average gallon costs $6.49 in the supermarket, compared to $3.30 for a gallon of regular, non-organic milk. Many health experts say organic milk is well worth the extra money because it contains no growth hormones and no antibiotics, and because the production process is more sustainable and humane than some other dairy farming practices.

Aurora dismissed the test results as “isolated,” and described the Post’s observations about cow grazing as mere “drive-bys.” An Aurora spokesperson told the Post via email that it complies with all grazing requirements, and affirmed, “We are a 100% certified organic producer.”

One reason for skepticism is that, as the Post investigation notes the USDA, which certifies dairy livestock as “organic,” does not actually inspect farms:

Instead, farmers hire their own inspectors from lists of private companies and other organizations licensed by the USDA. An inspector makes an annual visit, arranged days or weeks in advance. Only 5 percent of inspections are expected to be done unannounced.

The Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit representing small organic farmers, argues that the USDA’s certification system doesn’t work for consumers (who pay a premium for milk that might not live up to organic principles) or for dairy farmers who truly play by the rules. An Organic Dairy Report published by Cornucopia last summer gave Aurora a “Cow Rating ” of 0, a score that categorizes its production practices as “ethically deficient.” (For that matter, Horizon also received a score of 0 in the report.)

“About half of the organic milk sold in the U.S. is coming from very large factory farms that have no intention of living up to organic principles,” the Cornucopia Institute’s Mark Kastel told the Post.

This is hardly the first time that Aurora and other large organic milk producers have come under criticism. The New York Times reported back in 2006, when Walmart was dramatically increasing its organic milk offerings, that critics complained Aurora’s cows weren’t spending much time grazing and eating natural grasses. The Cornucopia Institute’s Kastel weighed in back then as well. He said of farms like Aurora: “They are trying to cut corners in the interest of producing milk as cheaply as possible.”

More questions are being asked as organic milk consumption rises. Last year, 5.2% of milk sales were organic, compared to only 1.9% a decade ago, Bloomberg reported recently.

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