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Organic vs. Regular Milk--Is It Worth Your Money?

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What Is Organic Milk?

When you shop in your dairy section you might see regular milk on sale for dirt cheap, and then organic, hormone free milk advertised at twice the price. Why is this type of milk more expensive, and is it worth your extra money? Are there any health benefits (or detriments) to buying either type? What does "certified organic" mean?

This article aims to bring to you the information and facts I have found--on both sides of the argument--and let you decide for yourself. Before I delve into the pros and cons of organic vs. regular, lets define what "organic milk" really is.

According the the United Stated Department of Agriculture organic milk must meet 4 criteria in order to be labeled "USDA Organic."

organic-milk--is-it-worth-your-money

Defining Organic

The first thing has to do from the ground up. No harmful pesticides or fertilizers (organic only) are allowed in the feed the cows eat.

The second is no bovine growth hormones (BGH) are allowed to increase milk production. There's no genetic mutation or irradiation permitted.

Third is no antibiotics are allowed, and if a cow does need to be treated it will not be returned to the herd for a year to make sure the antibiotics are out of its system.

And fourth has to do with grazing time. Organic cows must have "access to pasture." Much like "free range chicken," this has a lot of interpretations from being out in the pasture all day to only limited grazing time.

So those are the definitions--let's delve into the discussions.

organic-milk--is-it-worth-your-money

Why does it cost so much?

If you've ever browsed the dairy section you've probably noticed the substantial difference in price between regular milk and organic milk. Its often almost double the price of regular milk.

The reason for this is it costs more to raise organic cows. Everything from bedding to feed to grazing areas has to be organic. Also, using less cost-and-time-effective ways to raise and milk the cows, purchasing organic feed and allowing more pasture area per cow means more land must be owned and maintained, and less milk produced per unit of land--thus increasing the cost.

Conventional dairy cows often live in smaller spaces without the regulated "room for grazing." I say often, because you can find small, independent farms who raise grass fed cows but don't want the added expense of the certified organic label.

organic-milk--is-it-worth-your-money

Organic farm practices go beyond your glass of milk

Organic dairy farms begin with taking care of our earth. Using organic herbicides that are not toxic to the planet benefit more than just the cows, it benefits everyone. Workers aren't exposed to substances that cause all sorts of health problems, and our water tables stay cleaner.

As part of the organic agreement, no sewage fertilizer or synthetic fertilizer--which is allowed on normal farms--are allowed on organic farms.

Cows are also not given food made from animal byproducts, which can transmit mad cow disease.

Finally, no genetically altered food is fed to the cows. A number of studies on animals have shown genetically modified food to have harmful effects like sterility, increased allergies, increased likelihood of cancer, smaller and fewer offspring, and death.

Mark Kastel, co-director at The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group and organic industry watchdog based in Cornucopia, Wis., says, "In terms of the environment, organic management practices that are required by law protect the soil and ground and surface waters from pollution."

Hormones used in cows

BGH (bovine growth hormone) or rbST (recombinant bovine somatotropin) are hormones that increase milk production in cows. These cause insulin like growth factor (IGF-1) in the milk, survive pasteurization and are thereby passed on to humans and absorbed directly into the bloodstream. There is much debate on whether these hormones promote the mutation of human breast cells to cancerous forms. There are also claims that IGF-1 also stimulates the growth of already present cancerous breast and colon cells. In addition, there's a theory that these increased hormones can lead to early puberty.

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While the USDA and FDA have approved this hormone and claim there are no harmful effects, it has been banned in Australia, the European Union, Canada, and Japan. In fact, the FDA has a memo regarding the level of antibiotics that are acceptable in milk.

Hormones also affect the cows themselves. The cows get sicker once injected with the hormone, and are prone to mastitis--a painful infection in the udder. So the cows are then given high doses of antibiotics which also get passed along in your milk. Mastitis can cause pus to emit in milk which increases the harmful bacteria count. Perhaps this is eradicated with pasteurization, but drinking pus and/or antibiotics doesn't sound all that appealing to me.

To be fair, all dairy--regardless of whether it's organic or not--has hormones. These added hormones just increase the amount found in milk versus organic, grass-fed milk.

organic-milk--is-it-worth-your-money

Antibiotics

When a non-organic cow gets sick or has an udder infection (which happens more often to cows injected with hormones), she is treated with a dose of antibiotics. While Stephanie Hill, a dairy specialist and assistant professor of animal science at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University in Greensboro, says that it's illegal to give antibiotics to a lactating cow, adding that farmers are responsible for any antibiotics that show up in tanker-truck samples, which would force the dumping of the entire truck's contents, there is ample evidence of antibiotics found in milk --a quick Google search will show that.

One study stated that prior to the approval of BGH, 38% of milk sampled nationally was already contaminated by illegal residues of antibiotics and animal drugs,and this study shows that 21% of milk samples were positive for traces of antibiotics beyond the recommended holding period.

Consuming antibiotics through your milk can make you more immune to antibiotics and more susceptible to antibiotic resistant bacteria and diseases. MRSA--methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus--is an extremely dangerous bacterial infection that's highly resistant to some antibiotics and is becoming more widespread in the United States. Studies are being done on MRSA transmission from cows with mastitis to people. Google a picture of what a MRSA infection looks like...it's not pretty.

Recently, the FDA has begun to take baby steps limiting the amount of antibiotics given to animals, but the fact of the matter is that 80% of antibiotics in this country go not to people, but to animals.

organic-milk--is-it-worth-your-money

What does "access to pasture" really mean?

This is a gray area in the organic world. Does that mean the cows wander free across the countryside as they like or are the doors let open for 10 minutes to allow them to graze if they like?

The Cornucopia Institute is a nonprofit that promotes economic justice for family-scale farming, and provides a scoring card for dairies if you want to see how they measure up in regards to treatment of the cows.

Large scale dairies like Horizon are more like conventional dairies--lots of cows lined up munching away on organic pellets while being milked. A responsible farmer who rotates his cows on different crops not only is rewarded with milk with more nutrients, but with healthy pastures as well. Studies show that cows that graze on pasture have milk have higher levels of beneficial nutrients. Click here for more information.

There is still a lot of discussion on this and every dairy farm is different on the amount of land per cow they have and how much grazing time the cows get. The best solution if you want to go organic is to try to do your own research on the brand you buy.