"Milk is an emotional product."
Theresa Marquez, the mission executive at Organic Valley, hit the nail right on the head.
Whenever people talk about milk, and their choices in regards to this dairy product, it gets very personal, very quickly. Whether you were breast-fed or formula-fed, many of us transitioned to dairy milk as soon as we were toddlers. So it's understandable that we hold it near and dear to our hearts, even if we drink almond milk or coconut milk today.
One of the key questions these days is whether we should hand over the extra cash for organic milk. It's important to know exactly what we're getting when we buy organic milk vs. non-organic milk (which we'll call "conventional" milk for the purpose of this story).
We reached out to experts in both fields to really understand the difference between organic and conventional milk, specifically in terms of antibiotics and hormones.
What is organic milk?
According to strict organic regulations put in place by the USDA, organic milk must come from a cow that has not been treated with antibiotics, has not been given hormones ― for either reproduction or growth ― and has been fed at least 30 percent of its diet on pasture. (That's the minimum ― farmers in more temperate regions are expected to let their cows graze on pasture for as long as possible.) The rest of the cows' feed must be grown without chemical fertilizers, pesticides or genetically modified seeds.
What is conventional milk?
Conventional milk could be produced in the same way that organic is, but it doesn't have to be ― it's not held up to the same strict guidelines.
Are antibiotics used in the production of organic milk?
According to the USDA organic guidelines, organic milk comes from a cow that has not been given antibiotics. If a cow at an organic dairy farm does have to be treated with antibiotics, the farmer can no longer use her milk. That's it.
"It's not that we don't believe in antibiotics, we're just going to do everything we can to not use them," Marquez explains.
The main (but not only) reason dairy cows are given antibiotics is to treat or prevent mastitis, an infection in the tissue of the mammary glands that can occur during lactation. But organic farmers believe that mastitis is a fairly genetic problem. In order to prevent the need for antibiotics, organic farmers cull cows with mastitis from the herd, Marquez explained.
Marquez shared a story of a farmer who found that culling his herd made it so he only had to administer antibiotics twice in 17 years. Marquez goes on to say, "Farmer after farmer will tell you, 'Wow, I didn't think I could do this without antibiotics,' but we've learned to do this."
Are antibiotics found in conventional milk?
Conventional milk farmers use antibiotics to treat sick cows, and then use their milk. "These cows only return to their herd when we determine they are healthy and the antibiotics' withholding time has passed," Karen Jordan, veterinarian and conventional dairy farmer in Siler, North Carolina, explained to HuffPost. "Consumers can be assured that our country's milk supply is safe, as it is highly regulated and tested, both at the farm and at the processing plant."
What about the potential for antibiotic residue in conventional milk?
"There are strict standards in place to ensure the milk you buy at the store is safe," Jordan explains. "Milk is tested for antibiotics at each stage of the delivery process — from the farm, before it is transported and again at the dairy processing facility," Jordan explains.
Why does organic milk take a stand against antibiotics?
For Marquez, taking a stand against antibiotics is not about the potential residue that can find its way into milk. She says the real problem with antibiotic use is that "we shouldn't be giving livestock these antibiotics that create resistance, as these antibiotics could be used for humans." Marquez explains that "we need [antibiotics] for the human family, for whatever is going to come at us."
What kinds of hormones are used in conventional milk, and why?
"Synthetic bovine growth hormone is sometimes used by some farmers to help their cows produce more milk," Jordan explains. She assures that "the product has been in use for 20 years, and its safety has been affirmed and reaffirmed by government agencies in the U.S. and around the world."
Why does organic milk take a stand against using hormones?
Marquez believes we don't need bovine growth hormone, saying the use of this hormone "is just inhumane."
"In fact," Marquez points out, "do you know that we dumped milk this year in 2016? We dumped it down a drain." Because of a massive glut in 2016, 43 million gallons worth of milk was dumped in fields, manure lagoons or animal feed, reported the Wall Street Journal.
What other hormones are used on conventional dairy farms?
Reproductive hormones, Marquez says, are commonly used in large conventional dairy farms (but not organic farms) to ensure efficient breeding during artificial insemination (AI). AI is common practice in both conventional and organic operations, and it's expensive.
The hormones for reproduction that are used on conventional dairy farms include prostaglandin, gonadotropin releasing hormone and progesterone. They're hormones naturally produced by the cow during reproduction, but are now injected into them at specific times for a more controlled and efficient reproduction result.
How do organic dairy farmers handle reproduction without hormones?
"We do AI in organic farming, as well as using bulls the old fashioned way, but we don't not use hormones to do that. We have to have healthy cows, and those cows have to be ready to conceive ― it's a different approach to the whole idea of reproduction in cows," Marquez says. "We believe we have to use healthy cows that can reproduce naturally. That's the big difference between conventional and organic."
The choice is yours to make.
Here's the kicker. Even if you like the sound of organic milk, its practices come at a price ― a steep one. Walk into the milk section of any grocery store and you'll find that organic milk is sometimes double the price of conventional milk. That makes this choice a challenging one for most, and a choice that some people don't even have the option to make.
The reason for the steep price is layered ― the price of organic feed plays a large role, as do the effects of farm subsidies ― and to bridge the gap between the two would require a serious overhaul of our food system.
But time might make that change possible, and the most effective way to create change is through consumer education and demand.