By Adrienne Fawcett
A gallon of Horizon organic milk cost $8.49 at the Jewel in Lake Forest recently while the other three organic brands were $7.99. Across the aisle in the non-organic cooler, conventional milk goes for half the price, which is no big surprise—organic brands always cost more. But why is organic milk getting even more expensive than usual?
A recent New York Times article reported that demand for organic milk is rising along with the price as the supply dwindles:
“The main reason for the shortage is that the cost of organic grain and hay to feed cows has gone up sharply while the price that farmers receive for their milk has not. That means that farmers feed their cows less, resulting in lower milk production. At the same time, fewer farmers have been converting from conventional dairying to organic. “
The Organic Trade Association doesn’t yet have sales figures for 2011, but in 2010 U.S. sales in the organic milk and cream subcategory grew 10.2% to $2.14 billion, according to a spokeswoman for the organization.
Will the increase continue even though the price is going up at a time when many Americans are carefully watching their budgets and clipping coupons?
If so, what is the tipping point? What happens if the price keeps climbing? Will you pay $9 a gallon for organic milk? $10?
This is an easier question for people who are devoted to organic food no matter what the cost, and it’s also easier for value shoppers who buy whatever brand costs the least amount of money. But for those of us in the middle, rising costs put organic milk in a grey area.
I buy organic milk for my family when I find it for $6.99/gallon or less (which is about the price of Dominick’s O Organics). My husband buys conventional milk, which he can often find for about $2.50/gallon.
We approach the decision from different angles: I buy organic because we have three growing kids who drink a lot of milk. My husband doesn’t buy organic because we have three growing kids who drink a lot of milk.
My theory: it’s healthier. His theory: Why buy the more expensive organic milk when there’s no definitive scientific evidence that it’s better for you?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets the standard for organic milk, which requires the cow to be pasture fed for at least four months of the year, as opposed to eating from a trough. The feed must be organic, and antibiotics and synthetic hormones are forbidden.
But the very same USDA contends conventional milk is just as safe as organic milk.
The American Dietetic Association, in a Nutrition Fact Sheet called “Debunking Dairy Food Myths”,Â contends:
MYTH: Organic milk is healthier than regular milk.
- There is no conclusive scientific evidence that organic
food, including milk, is superior with regard to food
safety or nutrition. Organic and regular milk contain
the same nine essential nutrients that make dairy
products an important part of a healthy diet.
- All milk is tested for antibiotics to ensure it meets the
government’s stringent quality and safety standards.
- Certified organic products provide another option for
consumers to meet the Dietary Guidelines
recommendation for three servings of milk and milk
products each day”
I searched the internet for more insight and found that for every article or website that touts the benefits of organic milk, there’s an article or website in favor of conventional milk.
So I talked to three local experts. As with the internet search, I got differing opinions about organic vs. conventional milk. So in the end, it really does boil down to a personal choice.
Here’s what the local sources said:
Mary Ledman is principal of Keough Ledman Associates, a dairy industry consulting firm based in Libertyville. I asked if organic milk is better for humans than non-organic milk, and whether it’s worth spending twice as much on organic.
Mary said: There is no nutrient difference between organic milk and non-organic milk. It is a consumer preference.
I also asked if there’s a simple way to explain how the regulated price of milk is set, so that people can understand why milk prices vary week to week.
She said the price for fluid milk is based off of the prices of butter, nonfat dry milk, cheese and whey. Since these are products that trade in the global market, increased global demand particularly from China is contributing to higher dairy product prices and hence higher milk prices.
After talking with Mary Redman, I then interviewed Frances Murchison, a holistic health coach certified by the American Academy of Drugless Practitioners, and founder and director of Mindfully Fed, a nutrition consulting and education firm in Lake Forest.
I also spoke to Lake Bluff mom Lynette Foss, an MS, MEd, Biology Professor at Columbia College Chicago.
Both Frances and Lynette are proponents of organic milk.
Frances said there’s a lot of left wing propaganda in the health food genre–so much to the point that there are many so called “health foods” that she wouldn’t consume even from stores like Whole Foods.
“And I say this as a left-wing type of food person,” she admitted.
But as for whether people should be willing to spend twice as much or more on organic milk vs. non-organic, she said that yes, if you’re going to drink milk, it’s worth it.
“Some organic foods are very, very worth it and some aren’t,” she explained. “That being said, if I was a milk drinker, it would be very, very, very worth it for me to drink organic.”
“When you have a baby, you go to the doctor–and even a mainstream doctor will tell you to watch what you consume if you are nursing. Every single thing we consume, including OTC and prescription medications, comes out through the milk–broccoli, caffeine, chocolate, meds, vitamins, pesticides, herbicides, pollution. So if everything I consume is coming through my milk into my baby, then everything the cow is eating is going to the mother, and for that reason alone I am not going to touch regular milk.”
Lynette Foss said the organic standards increase the cost to the farmer, and that this increase is passed on to the consumer.Â But what about science?
“While currently there is no research that proves organic milk is nutritionally superior to commercial milk, there are several studies that have found traces of antibiotics in commercial milk,” said Lynette. “These antibiotics are used to treat mastitis in cows, a prevalent problem in dairies where BGH is used.”
She participated in one of those research projects, and the experience was sufficient to convince her to purchase organic milk.
“Some people incorrectly believe that the BGH used to enhance milk production is itself harmful to humans, but this is not the case–it’s the antibiotics used to treat the resulting udder infections in cows,” she pointed out.
In addition to feed and the treatment of cows, marketing plays a role in the price of organic milk.
Dairy consultant Mary Ledman said milk is a very homogenous product; however, companies spend significant marketing dollars and in some case R&D to differentiate their product from the mainstream.
This means that the Horizon milk that Jewel sells for $8.49 a gallon is not much different from O Organics house brand that Dominicks sells for $6.49 to $6.99 a gallon.
Lynette summed it up: “There is also ‘branding’ involved, so paying more for one brand over another of organic milk doesn’t make sense”