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The udder truth: a special report on organic milk

Got organic milk?

Jerusha Klemperer blogs about food and is a program manager at Slow Food USA. She was raised on a kooky concoction called “milk and soda,” and likes to eat inappropriate amounts of cheese.  She cooks with Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant where she’ll soon reprise her role as the Lunch Lady.


You walk into Whole Foods and you face a wall of milk. Depending on the branch, the selection will vary. Same thing with Gourmet Garage, Food Emporium, you name it. That’s because supermarkets each have their own buyers. So, how do you decide what to buy? What’s healthiest? What’s worth the extra money? Here we clarify some of milk’s greatest mysteries about rBGH, organics, expiration dates, farmers markets, and whether or not skirting the law for the unpasteurized raw stuff is worth it.

Why buy organic?
Unless you want a heap of drugs in your milk, buying conventional (non-organic) dairy is penny wise and pound foolish. Organic dairy—and this includes butter—is guaranteed to be rBGH-free. While there are no definitive studies yet on the effects of rBGH (it’s too soon to tell, basically), some early research suggests that the growth hormone might be responsible for a host of weird health issues, including early puberty in girls. Um, nobody wants that.

Organic Valley is the best of the "industrial organic" brands, according to Klemperer.

In the EU, rBGH is banned due to concerns over these potential health effects in humans and animals—the Europeans seem to think we’re all better safe than sorry. Also, organic dairy has no antibiotics in it. Conventional dairy cows are given large amounts of antibiotics to prevent disease, but also because they encourage milk production. It’s likely that all this antibiotic abuse in cows is contributing to a collective antibiotic resistance in people and the rise of suberbugs like MRSA, says the CDC. Children drink a ton of milk, of course, which is why NYC parents might especially want to take up the precautionary principle and spend a little more on organic, if they can. And why does it cost more anyway? Organic dairy is usually more labor intensive and happens on smaller farms, which don’t benefit from economy of scale (what I like to call, bigger, faster, cheaper).

OK, which organic brand?
If you have a choice between, say, Horizon and Organic Valley (what I would call “industrial organic” brands) go with OV. Without going too deep into it, Horizon is owned by corporate giant Dean Foods, and has been busted for barely meeting organic standards and doing so only by letter of the law, and not in spirit; Organic Valley is a farmer cooperative. This means it’s run by farmers, and they get more for their product. Give your money to the farmers, no?

What’s with the expiration date? Why so far away?
You’ve probably noticed that the expiration date on industrial organic milk is sometimes over a month away, which seems handy but creepy. It’s because a different preservation process is used on this milk. (It’s heated slightly higher, for slightly longer.) The reason is that organic milk has a lower production volume and slower sales than conventional milk, so needs to last longer in transit and on the shelf. I have heard a critic or two say that this process destroys some of the nutritional value of the milk, but I am willing to trade that for a lack of nasty additives. Or, you can aim for some of the smaller non-industrial brands (see below). Some of you may also have noticed that conventional milk is labeled with an earlier expiration date if sold in NYC. It’s due to an arcane law based on the belief that milk “shipped to the city is more likely to stand unrefrigerated for longer periods before it reaches stores and also during the trip from store to home.”

Thanks to its homey Chelsea Market location, Ronnybrook has become NYC's brand of choice.

What about the other brands I see on the shelves?
If you see Ronnybrook available at Chelsea Market, Whole Food, or Greenmarkets, grab it! It’s not certified organic, it’s true, but that’s just a technicality. They’re what some of us call “beyond organic.”  These are happy, rBGH-free cows, and the producers at the farmers market stand will confirm it and welcome you to their farm for a visit and see for yourself. Try doing that with a big, industrial dairy. (They’ll say no, I guarantee you.) Milk Thistle and Evans Farmhouse Creamery are also available in stores and at city Greenmarkets, and they have sound farming practices and rich, flavorful milk. Also, with all three of these brands, you can return your glass bottle for a buck, and the bottle will be reused.  Skytop Farms, which I’ve found at some Whole Foods locations, is also delicious and the real deal. You know why? SkyTop Farms is not a farm at all—it’s Evans milk bought by a small distributor and sold under a different label. Just FYI.

How about raw milk?
Many people sing the nutritional and healing praises of raw milk (i.e., un-pasteurized, straight from the teat), including—you guessed it—all of Europe. Raw milk is illegal in most US states including New York, due to food safety concerns about bacteria. You might find a farmer willing to sell to you directly, using various loopholes like selling you a piece of the cow (there’s a “why buy the cow, when you can get the milk for free” joke in here somewhere, I’m certain). To find some of those loopholes, check out The Real Milk Campaign. –JK

Do you have strong feelings on organic milk? Tell us, here!