Major dairy companies may be bluffing—and getting away with it

EC: Your 'Organic' Milk Probably Isn't Actually Organic
Credit: Photo by vwalakte via getty images

Ever since classifying foods as "organic" became a thing, figuring out exactly how to ensure that classification—and what it actually means—has prompted a lot of debate. The Washington Post recently reported that Aurora Organic Dairy, a company that provides milk to retailers like Walmart and Costco, may have been misleading their customers by classifying regular milk as organic. The USDA, it turns out, allows companies to hire their own inspectors to certify that they're actually following organic-food protocols. Sound a little sketchy? You're not wrong.

The main factor in certifying that milk is organic lies in the eating habits of the cows. Throughout the growing season, cows at organic dairies are supposed to be grazing—that means out in the fields, munching on grass—and not cooped up in a feedlot or a barn. However, over an eight-day period of observing Aurora's facilities, the Post noted that "at no point was any more than 10 percent of the herd out [grazing]." This is contrary to Aurora's claims that all their cows were constantly out on pasture. An Aurora spokeswoman dismissed the Post's reporting, saying, "The requirements of the USDA National Organic Program allow for an extremely wide range of grazing practices that comply with the rule."

But the Post also approached Virginia Tech scientists to analyze Aurora's milk for key indicators of proper grass-feeding. Their findings? Not good. Grass-fed cows typically show high levels of conjugated linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid, and lower levels of linoleic acid. Aurora's milk, however, showed the opposite: high levels of linoleic acid and low levels of CLA and ALA. This means that Aurora cows weren't getting the grazing time they need for their milk to be classified as organic. And Aurora's inspectors only visited in November, well after grazing season ends on September 30. Therefore, inspectors wouldn't have been able to speak to the grazing habits of Aurora's cows, but still passed them: a clear breach of inspection policy.

Unfortunately, however, this issue isn't limited to Aurora Organic Dairy. A number of dairy companies claiming to adhere to organic standards seem to have no interest in actually doing so. It's expensive to produce organic milk because it requires a lot of land that can't be enhanced by chemical growing aids. And grass-fed cows simply produce less milk compared to cows on a diet specifically formulated for milk production. On the flip side, the Post points out, "a farmer can sell certified organic milk for almost double the price of conventional, and there are other benefits: The milk is measurably different, and according to the USDA, it improves cow health and reduces the environmental impacts of agriculture. Moreover, because grazing is natural cow behavior, some say it is more humane."

So it's very possible that you've paid that high price for a gallon of "organic" milk that's exactly the same as the normal one on super-sale at the grocery store. And there's not much you can do about it, unless the USDA makes it much harder for companies to earn that "organic" stamp of approval.