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April 2013 

BEYOND ORGANIC DAIRY

By Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN (www.TamaraDuker.com),
An NYC-based registered dietitian who specializes in digestive disorders and food intolerances


Earth Day is an annual reminder to take stock of how our lifestyle choices affect the planet. Each year, I notice that Earth Day messages tend to repeat a familiar list of ways to be greener: recycling; driving less (and biking or walking more); choosing energy-efficient cars, appliances, etc.; and re-using shopping bags.

Often overlooked in the conversation, however, is the impact of our food choices on the planet.
Considering the planet when shopping for food can take many forms. In the dairy department, many people think that organic milk, yogurt and cheese is about as green as it gets.
But how green is your organic dairy, really?

Alas, an organic label these days isn’t a guarantee that food was produced in an environmentally sustainable manner—particularly when it comes to dairy. No matter how happy that cartoon cow looks on your milk carton or how bucolic those rolling hills appear on your yogurt label, much of the organic dairy produced today is produced on industrial scale feedlots that are green in neither literal nor figurative terms.

“Big organic” brands—billion dollar corporations with the scale to supply national supermarket chains—are generally organic to the letter of the law, not the spirit of the law. Just like conventionally raised, factory-farmed dairy cows, many “big organic” dairies confine several thousands of animals in cramped, concrete quarters with little or no access to pasture. Like conventionally raised dairy cows, “big organic” cows are also fed an unnatural diet of grains instead of their native diet of grass and hay. The only difference is that “big organic” cows have organic versions of corn, alfalfa and soy filling their feeding troughs, and they are not fed growth hormones to stimulate milk supply. These massive feedlots are also known to release massive quantities of untreated animal waste that pollutes nearby land and water.

Increasingly, if you care about making truly earth-friendly food choices in the dairy aisle, you need to look beyond the organic label to understand where and how your cows were raised and what they ate. Some labels and claims can help navigate you toward the best choices.

Grass-fed or pasture raised: While this is not currently a USDA-regulated claim, “grass fed” generally means that a substantial portion of a cow’s diet was comprised of grass or hay. A “pasture-raised” claim generally connotes that cows were allowed to graze freely in a field, getting grass straight from the ground, not a feeding trough. Milk from grass fed cows has been shown to contain substantially higher levels of Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)—a nutrient whose benefits may range from cancer prevention to supporting a favorable body composition of lean mass versus fat. Grass fed dairy also contains higher levels of anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats compared to dairy from cows fed a standard grain-based diet, whether organic or not.

Single Source: Does the milk used in your dairy product come from all over the country and get pooled together before being turned into yogurt or cheese? Or is it sourced from a single farm (with an identifiable name and address)? When dairy is made from pooled milk from hundreds or thousands of farms, transparency into the environmental and animal welfare practices of each individual contributor is virtually impossible. But when you know your farm and farmers, it’s far easier to verify that your dairy is as earth friendly as the label would have you believe. Some small dairy farms even welcome visitors—an encouraging sign that they’re proud of what—and how—they produce.

Certified Humane: The Certified Humane designation is a third-party animal welfare program administered by Humane Farm Animal Care. Whether it’s on meat, eggs or dairy, the Certified Humane label represents the highest standard of animal welfare; it’s probably what most people would like to believe “organic” means (or wish that it did). There are only a small handful of dairy farms that have earned the Certified Humane designation; it ensures that animals have plenty of space, appropriate shelter and are handled gently from birth until death. They are fed healthy diets and have the freedom to engage in normal animal behaviors.

Depending on where you live and shop, you may have access to one or more dairy products that meet these “beyond organic” criteria for wholesomeness and sustainability. In pockets of the country like Vermont, upstate New York, Amish country Pennsylvania, and northern California, you may be lucky enough to have several such local options on sale at your supermarket or Farmer’s Market.

For the rest of the country, however, ‘beyond organic’ options are more limited. As far as cultured dairy products go, there is only one nationally-distributed brand that is certified organic and also meets my ‘beyond organic’ standards: Green Valley Organics Lactose Free. Green Valley Organics yogurts, kefirs and sour cream are made from organic, Certified Humane milk from a single-source dairy farm where cows are fed grass and hay for the majority of the year. Greener still, these dairy products are produced in a solar-powered creamery that minimizes the need for electricity from non-renewable sources.

So whether it’s Earth Day or everyday, I encourage you to think beyond organic when it comes to your food choices, especially on the dairy aisle.