Food Biz

Why I Care About Where My Milk Comes From (But Not Whether It's Organic)

June  8, 2016

My impulse, when facing the wall of milk at the grocery store, is to reach for the organic gallon. "Organic" casts a halo that makes me interpret the higher price as a sign that there's something better about it.

But is there?

I used to buy organic milk by default, under this very assumption. But even though I care about where my milk comes from, I'm no dairy industry expert, and I haven't spent months studying the nuances of organic agricultural practices.

Shop the Story

Because I wanted to make a more informed decision, I talked to three people who think about milk for a living—Daniel Horan, C.E.O. of Five Acre Farms, which supplies local milk to the New York City metro area; Dr. Bill Weiss, a professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at The Ohio State University; and Eric Snowdeal, brand manager at Organic Valley, an independent co-op of organic farmers—about the differences between the two types.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“While the ingestion of antibiotics in milk is indeed a red herring as noted, encouraging antibiotic-free dairy cows (i.e. antibiotics only used when a cow is sick) is vital for greater reasons.”
— ricardob

(As background, organic milk comes from cows that have been raised according to organic farming practices: The animals are never given antibiotics, artificial growth hormones, non-organic feed, or GMO feed, and they must be let out to organic pasture for at least 120 days of the grazing season.)

Unsurprisingly, I found no clear-cut answers. But, after taking our conversations into account, I was able to reach a personal conclusion (and maybe yours will be different!), which is that I value where the milk comes from more than whether that milk is labeled "organic." And if I seek out high-quality products from farms and purveyors I trust, conventional milk can have many of the same advantages as organic. It's not so different than deciding between organic and conventional produce (the label can only tell you so much—one argument for why farmers markets and CSAs are valuable).

How did I reach that decision? First, I (obviously) asked myself the selfish question: What's the difference for my body between drinking a glass of conventional milk and a glass of organic milk? For my own purposes, it turns out to be negligible. Organic milk is higher in omega-3 fatty acids, as well as Vitamin E and beta carotene, but unless those nutrients are particularly important to you, "at the human level, there are basically no consumption differences," said Dr. Weiss. Moreover, the varying nutrient levels are determined by the breakdown of what the cows eat (not whether that nutrition is organic): As Dr. Weiss put it, "If conventional cows were grazing, they’d also have these high levels."

And conventional cows might be grazing. While the organic industry has a USDA-issued pasture rule dictating how many days cows must be out to pasture and what percentage of their "dry matter intake" has to come from grazing pasture during that time, that does not necessarily mean that non-organic dairies do not put their herds out to pasture, too. Whereas in the meat industry, grain-based feed is used to bulk up the animals (for obvious reasons), many conventional herds are fed mostly grass anyway.

I'm also not concerned about antibiotics in my conventional milk: Residue of drugs in any type of milk violates food safety rules and is enforced through rigorous testing, which deters dairy farmers from treating any cows that are not in need of medicine. (Dan from Five Acre Farms called antibiotics a "red herring" in milk—a distraction rather than a true concern.)

Then there's the synthetic hormone rBST, which is a more complicated issue: By law, organic dairy cows are never given rBST (also known as rBGH), which is injected to increase milk production, and that's verified by third-party auditors. The FDA has declared that rBST "can be used without any appreciable risk to the health of consumers" and that labels that declare the milk comes from cows not treated with rBST are most important "not because of any safety concerns about milk [...] but to ensure that the labeling of the milk is not false or misleading." And all milk has hormones: "BGH (or BST) is a hormone that cattle naturally produce which is structurally similar or even identical to synthesized rBGH hormones."

I personally avoid rBST because of what it suggests about animal welfare—a 2003 study in the Canadian Journal of Veterinary Research found that it increased the risk of clinical mastitis [breast tissue inflammation] by about 25% during the treatment period—but it is possible to find conventional dairies that do not treat their cows with the hormone.

And now, the less selfish (and the trickier) factors: how organic farming practices affect the dairy producers and the environment. Both Eric Snowdeal of Organic Valley and Dan Horan of Five Acre Farms, which does not supply organic milk, said that it's easier for organic farmers to make a viable living: "The farmers set their own fair pay price," said Eric, whereas on the conventional side "there’s pressure to get very large and have large economies of efficiency in order to squeeze out profits." Unless a conventional farmer can find a distributor, like Five Acre Farms, to buy their milk at a higher price, they'll be selling it at a rate primarily determined by the government and at which it's hard to make a profit. When milk is $2 per gallon at the gas station minimart, someone somewhere is paying the price.

And then you have to take into account organic farming practices, where no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides are used, and how its impact on the environment differs from those of conventional methods. But, as Dr. Weiss pointed out, if we're talking about environment impact as "carbon footprint, conventional is lower: You get more milk per cow, and the more milk per cow means fewer cows are needed, and fewer cows means less impact." Then again, when "you start thinking about the chemicals—so if there are longer-term effects—you might think that organic [milk] has a lower environmental impact." Plus, organic farming practices may require more labor expenses and yield less product.

All of which is to say that different farmers will have different reasons for whether, and when, they abide by organic standards. To me, it doesn't seem fair to write off a farm that is not certified as organic without understanding the reason behind it. Again, it's not vastly different from making decisions about fruits and vegetables.

Photo by Sophie - Wholehearted Eats

The conclusion of many hours of talking and thinking about milk? If I'm unsure of where the milk is coming from—and thus how the animals are cared for, what they're generally fed with, how large the herd-size is—I'd turn to organic because many of these variables are dictated by law. It seems more likely that the animals and the land have been treated well and that the farmers are making a decent living.

But when I do have time to do the research to find a dairy or distributor I trust, I certainly wouldn't rule out conventional milk. It's less expensive—a real factor for me as a consumer—and, if I know where it's coming from, there's a chance it might be just as good for all parties involved.

Do you buy organic or conventional milk, and how did you reach that conclusion? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Listen Now

On Black & Highly Flavored, co-hosts Derek Kirk and Tamara Celeste shine a light on the need-to-know movers and shakers of our food & beverage industry.

Listen Now

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • tamater sammich
    tamater sammich
  • Lilismom
  • ChefJune
  • mrslarkin
  • Melissa McDowell
    Melissa McDowell
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


tamater S. June 13, 2016
Organic standards are higher than non-organic standards, but this is just a generalization, because there are huge organic labels, like Horizon, which do the minimal, (number of hours their animals pasture) and there are smaller companies that are fabulous. You could try animal rights orgs in your area, or which I very much respect. Some, but not all health food chains meticulously source their products. In my area, the 6 store chain I trust is:
Good luck on your most worthy quest!
Sarah J. June 13, 2016
Thank you for sharing these resources!
Lilismom June 13, 2016
I too am concerned about the milk we consume. My main concern is the treatment of the animals. Is there a source to compare milk brands and their sources?
ChefJune June 10, 2016
It's been a long time since I've bought any milk other than Ronnybrook's. It's not labeled Organic, so I'd presume it is not certified, but it is local and that is important to me as well.
We've cut back our dairy consumption greatly recently as all dairy products are inflammatory to the system, and having some issues with that has made us extra cautious. So knowing where our milk/cream/cheese comes from has become very important.
mrslarkin June 9, 2016
We are a family of four and drink A LOT of milk. We usually buy a gallon of conventional skim a week, and splurge on a half gallon of Ronnybrook Creamline milk. When my daughter is at college, we occasionally visit the local dairy near her school for raw milk, which is insanely good and at $5 a half gallon (plus a $2.50 glass deposit), an occasional treat. Pricey, but totally worth it.
Melissa M. June 9, 2016
We drink organic but we recently became a one income household so we've been rethinking that decision. Our girls drink about three gallons a week, which comes out to roughly $72 a month on just milk. This article has brought up some pretty fair points, thank you for writing it. Do you happen to know where we can find information on local dairies?
tamater S. June 9, 2016
Yeah, it can be hard. There have been times I had to lower my standards, too. We do what we can when we can.
Ttrockwood June 11, 2016
Consider one of the many great non dairy milks as an alternative that is much cheaper than organic milk. Organic unsweetened almond milk or soy milk can be found at great prices
ricardob June 9, 2016
Regarding antibiotics, I think you're missing one of the main points: overuse of antibiotics in farm animals (but doesn't leave residue in milk) is a major contributor to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (which the World Health Organization lists as a dangerously high threat). Although the FDA is slowly eliminating non-therapeutic use, currently use of antibiotics in feed to prevent disease in cows is contributing to antibiotic resistance which is undermining a keystone of modern medicine. While the ingestion of antibiotics in milk is indeed a red herring as noted, encouraging antibiotic-free dairy cows (i.e. antibiotics only used when a cow is sick) is vital for greater reasons.
Sarah J. June 9, 2016
Thanks for bringing up that point, ricardob. My own understanding is that non-therapeutic antibiotic use is more of a problem in the meat industry rather than the dairy industry, but I agree that it's very scary that the overuse of antibiotics—anywhere, in any industry—is contributing to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Anna June 9, 2016
Most conventional dairies DO NOT pasture their animals, and often do not even let the cows out of the barn. If a farm is milking 1000+ cows (it is argued that a small scale dairy is not viable unless diversified with other income tracks, so bigger is often the answer), you will most likely find the cows inside a barn with robot milkers. A cow will walk into the "Milker" that will scan the chip embedded in the cow, dispense grain, and laser-led vaccum milkers put themselves onto the cow. There are even robot manure sweepers that pass through the barn multiple times a day. The cows never leave the barn. Why would they? This is the milk you are drinking.
Samantha W. June 8, 2016
I think so many people grapple with this choice these days -- I'm glad you wrote about it. I feel the same way.
tamater S. June 8, 2016
I care where all my familys food comes from - not just for myself, but for the farm workers, some of whom are children, exposure to drugs and other chemicals. Let us all understand too, that whatever product is fed or injected into the animal eventually ends up in our water supply. It is true that organic costs more, which is the opposite of how things should be - the polluters should bear the cost of dirtying our environment! But we live in a corpocracy, and huge companies like Horizon Dairy and England's Best are constantly doing their best to fight best to erode organic standards when there's a buck - or even a penny at stake. For several years now, I've subscribed to the newsletter, which is doing a super job informing us what's going on and petitioning - even though its more pleasant to imagine that because we're coughing up the extra dough for organic, that things are alright. In the days when congressmen and women are lobbied and often bought by agribusiness.

A lot of people can no way, no how, afford an extra penny for organic. I don't judge them. The ones who say they can't afford the extra, or that "it's not worth it" while they're holding a $6.00 latte - they're the ones I wish would re-think priorities.

Thank you so much, Food 52, for bothering to ask the right questions!
FiberVoodoo June 8, 2016
However, another aspect that wasn't addressed was the fact the virtually all Organic milk is Ultra heat pasturized, rendering all of that milky goodness into basically white water. It extends the shelf life. Not worth it...
Sarah J. June 8, 2016
I actually wrote about this in another post last week!

I don't prefer the taste of conventional to organic—I think they taste different but both taste good to me.
CJ June 8, 2016
Great article! We drink horizon organic mainly because of our toddler and the omega-3 acids.
PHIL June 8, 2016
Hi Sarah, another benefit of organic milk is it lasts much longer and has a much later sell by date so less waste. Because it is more expensive it is ultra pasteurized. Plus , I think the organic fat free tastes much better then the regular fat free
Sarah J. June 8, 2016
Thanks for sharing, Phil! I wrote about UHT pasteurization recently!
Pamela F. June 8, 2016
I am a RAW milk drinker. Going on 3 years and I am still here to live to tell..... I do and would drink conventional, knowing where it came from. Ronny Brooks Farm milk.... and I believe its Organic Valley ,who has a Grass Fed, Pasteurized only milk. I do not and will not drink a milk that is Ultra Pasteurized or both Pasteurized and homogenized.
Liza C. June 8, 2016
Lovely article Sarah! I go for organic most often for the same reason. But if the dairy was from a small farm and I was aware of their practices, feed, etc... that would work too. Cheers!