Got organic Milk?
I've been chastised for years by my "save the animals", "nitrites cause cancer" and "pesticides will kill you" friend for not buying organic milk-among other things. It's the hormones in the regular stuff that literally get her goat. But, what's the deal with organic milk? Many markets command a 2-3 buck premium over the regular stuff. And what's up with the expiration date? The organic milk I sometimes buy has a "sell by" date that is 4 to 6 weeks in the future.
I thought organic meant eat/drink now, while it's fresh. The USDA says that for milk to get the "organic" label, the cows must be raised on pesticide-free feed with no hormones. Okay, that sounds good, but there's more. It also stipulates that the cows must have "access to pasture," hence the whole "happy cow" image.
But it's this "access to pasture" clause that has the organic community in an uproar and is fueling a major battle in the organic world. Purists want the USDA to amend the criteria to require that organic milk only come from cows that graze in pastures during the growing season. Activists contend that the real health benefits of organic milk (in addition to being free from pesticides and hormones) come from a grass diet and cite studies that indicate that grass fed cows produce milk with 5x the amount of the good stuff like conjugated linoleic acid; a believed cancer fighter.
The organic community also believes that if consumers discovered that the milk they were paying double for came from cows stuck inside with little room to move, they'd reconsider their purchase. Organic diehards complain that big business practices have infiltrated the organic market and that new mega dairies (they name Horizon and Aurora) that keep the cows confined in fenced-in feedlots and feed them grain from troughs threaten the entire organic ideal; again back to the happy cow image. So why don't all farms let their cows happily graze the land? Money is one reason. Organic is no longer just a way of life, but a big business. T
he organic milk market is a multi-billion dollar enterprise, and it's cheaper to keep cows in feedlots. Another defense against requiring longer grazing time is that the nutritional benefits of a grass-fed diet are negligible. And there is still the issue with the expiration date. Why does regular milk have a sell-by date of around 2 weeks and for organic milk it can be as long as 2 months? The answer lies in the pasteurization process. Much of the organic milk on the shelf is "ultrapasteurized" meaning that it was heated to 280 degrees for about 2 seconds then quickly chilled. Regular pasteurization heats the milk to 162 degrees for at least 15 seconds. It's unclear what this newer process does to the nutritional profile of the milk.
Organic farmers favor it because it gives them more shipping time. There are diehards on this issue too who complain that any pasteurization zaps the good bacteria from the milk and that the only way to derive the true nutrition from milk is by consuming raw milk-i.e., milk that comes straight from the cow! Short of renting a cow, it's not easy (or even legal in some states) to procure the raw stuff, but there are resources out there.
So in the end, organic milk: thumbs up or down? Definitely up. Avoiding hormones and pesticides is a good thing. But the price and how the cow was fed/treated are considerations for many. You can learn more with the help of a recent study that actually ranks milk according to how it's produced. ** Postscript: Trader Joe's does carry organic milk! At my particular Joe, it gets little shelf space and the check-out clerk told me that it often sells out...which is my excuse for having not noticed it prior. And it's a heck of a lot cheaper than at Whole Foods.