Making Sense of Dairy Labels

by FoodPrint

Published: 7/18/19, Last updated: 1/23/20

Labels are confusing, and dairy labels are no exception. With milk and other dairy products, it used to be as simple as choosing between skim, two percent and whole. Then consumers started wondering if they should be paying the premium for organic — and wondering what even makes milk “organic.” Now there’s a new dairy kid in town: certified grassfed. Which is best? What’s the difference? How does a shopper decide what to buy?

What’s the Story with Organic Milk?

The USDA Organic label is regulated by the federal government and guarantees that certain standards have been met. For dairy products, the organic label guarantees cows aren’t given growth hormones (like rBGH, also known as rBST) or antibiotics (even to treat illness). Unlike standard dairy cows — who are generally kept in confinement and fed a diet that might include animal byproducts — organic dairy cows can only be given organic feed, without additives, and must be allowed some time to roam on pasture.

Initially, rules about animals having access to graze outside were not included in the official standards, but in the early 2000s, a “pasture rule” was added, after it was revealed that some large organic dairies were not “pasturing” their animals, contrary to the original intent of the standards. Now all organic dairy animals must graze on pasture for a minimum of 120 days per year and must get at least 30 percent of their intake from grazing pasture (i.e. eating grass) during the grazing season.

The FoodPrint of Dairy

For in-depth information on dairy production and the crisis facing farmers, read our report, The FoodPrint of Dairy.

Learn More

Why Do These Issues Matter?

So this tells us a bit about what is — and mostly what is not — in organic milk. But why should you care about antibiotics being given to dairy cows? The overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture has led to a growing public health crisis caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And why care if the cows are eating organic feed? Organic grain must be grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers and therefore is better for the surrounding soil and water — not to mention the health of farmers, farmworkers and those who live near the farms where crops are grown. And the use of growth hormones and confinement practices in dairy cows leads to health issues and mistreatment of the animals. Concerned about these issues? That higher price for organic dairy means you are supporting a better system.

A Caveat About That Organic Grain

Organic milk comes from cows who were fed organic grain. We import most of our organic grain in the US, because farmers don’t currently produce enough to meet the demand for organic feed (i.e. grains to be fed to animals who will be sold as organic meat or will produce organic dairy and eggs). But it has been found that numerous shipments of foreign corn, soybeans and other grains labeled “organic” are fraudulently labeled and might not be organic after all. This is an important issue, and the USDA needs to figure out how to do a better job of managing and regulating organic feed. But keep in mind that even if the grain is not organic, the organic dairy certification guarantees a number of other factors and still has merit.

What Organic Doesn’t Mean

Just because milk is organic doesn’t mean it comes from a small, green family farm. As the demand for organic dairy has risen, there has also been a rise of the organic “megadairy.”

Certified Organic megadairies are flooding the organic dairy market with milk they have produced much more cheaply and with lower standards — from environmental to animal welfare — than small farms do. If possible, supporting small and medium-sized dairies is ideal. If your grocer or farmers’ market sells locally-produced milk or fresh cheese, ask about it! By asking a few questions about how the cows were raised and fed, you’ll be able to make a more informed shopping decision.

You can read more about megadairies and their problems in our FoodPrint of Dairy report.

What’s Great About Grassfed Milk

You’ve heard of grassfed beef, but did you know that dairy can also be grassfed? Grassfed cows are similar to organic cows, but the standards are even higher. These animals live on pasture, with no-confinement, and eat a grass-only diet. The cows cannot be given growth hormones or antibiotics. Because of this, grassfed cows are healthier, and these farms are much better for the animals, the environment, the farmers and the community. Oh, and better for you! Cows that get their nutrition from grass make milk that is healthier to drink. The market for grassfed milk is much smaller than organic, and the monopolization of dairies into megadairies is not yet a problem so you can be confident that certified grassfed milk comes from small and medium-sized family farms.

What Labels to Look For

In early 2019, Organic Valley and Maple Hill launched a certification and label program for grass-fed milk; look for Organic Valley’s Grassmilk or their “Certified Grass-Fed Organic” seal. Other dairy products will be labeled “100% grassfed.”

If you’re interested in purchasing grassfed dairy products, we recommend you look for these labels:

For more about USDA Certified Organic Dairy labels and more, visit the FoodPrint Food Label Guide.

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