Organic Milk: When a Label Does Not Tell the Whole Story

The US is experiencing a growth in the demand for organic milk and a drop in sales for conventional. In the $40 billion milk industry, organic milk makes up about five percent of milk sales, which is more than double the share from just ten years ago. The higher price premium for organic milk has enticed more dairies to go organic. But not every organic dairy farm is operated the same way.

Organic milk operations range from small dairy operations to those that resemble factory farms. In order to be labeled organic in the US, a dairy operation has to follow the USDA organic standards. The USDA standards require that the animals be fed organic feed; farmers must avoid giving their animals hormones and antibiotics; and the cows must be provided with pasture for the entire grazing period. Organic farms must be certified by a third party, but a poorly timed or limited audit may mask some of the farms' practices. Due to these limitations, some factory farm-like operations with thousands of heads of cows and limited access to grazing are able to continue to operate as USDA certified organic dairies. There is concern that these farms will tarnish the reputation of dairy operations that are applying sustainable practices on their certified organic farms.

There are many small organic dairy farmers that are a great source for sustainable dairy products. But in a typical grocery store, organic milk options may be somewhat limited, though there are usually a few brand-names to choose from. As highlighted in a recent Washington Post article, however, these big brands can source their milk from farms that have a varying degree of sustainable practices.

Here is a quick overview of some of the larger USDA certified organic milk brands on the market, and what to look out for:

Organic Valley

In 1988, a group of farmers in Wisconsin gathered together to form a farmer-owned organic cooperative. The group later established the Organic Valley brand and now has 1,800 farmer-owners in thirty two states. The Cornucopia Institute gives Organic Valley an excellent rating for its farmer-owner structure, avoidance of hormones and antibiotics and support of small farmers and rural community health. While it is the country's largest farmer-owned cooperative and its products are available in retailers nationwide, Organic Valley demonstrates that some of the principles used to develop organic standards in dairy operations can be applied on scale.


It's a very different origin and operations story for Horizon. Investors with ties to the factory farming-like operation, Aurora Dairy, began Horizon to sell mass produced organic milk. Horizon was soon acquired by the conventional dairy giant Dean Foods and incorporated in their "WhiteWave" division. Aurora, Horizon's original milk supplier, was found in 2007 to have willfully violated USDA organic standards. Cornucopia notes that Horizon's milk suppliers are operating as factory farms and not aligned with what consumers would associate with organic practices for which they are paying a premium. WhiteWave has now been bought by Danone (of which Dannon is a subsidiary) which now controls much of the organic milk industry in the US.


Widely known for its organic yogurt products, Stonyfield purchases its milk from the cooperative that runs Organic Valley. The Organic Consumers Association ranks it as organic and hormone free. Cornucopia Institute gives it an excellent rating for their management and procurement process. Stonyfield is eighty percent owned by Danone. Danone is now in the process of selling Stonyfield, so it will be interesting to see how the company procures its milk in the future.

In-Store House Brands

After Horizon split off, Aurora Dairy now supplies in-store house brands for Wal-Mart, Costco and other major retailers' organic milk. These house brands may source their organic milk from either factory farm-like operations or from small family farms. The factory farm-like operations may generate their milk from tens of thousands of cows that may only nominally have access to grazing to comply with USDA organic standards. The Washington Post notes that these mega-'organic' dairy operations can harm traditional family dairies economically by eroding prices.

Whole Foods 365 Organic

One retailer, Whole Foods, participated with the Cornucopia Institute to review their operations, earning an excellent rating for sourcing from family farms. The milk that Whole Foods buys comes from a cooperative of organic family farmers, often from farms near the communities where the milk is sold. Whole Foods states that their "farmers are dedicated to practices such as pasturing and allowing animals to express their natural behaviors."

While organic dairy operation practices can vary, there are some guidelines to follow to choose organic milk. Organic Valley markets their dairy products as coming from farms with fewer than 100 cows and average herd size of 72 animals and lets you search for farms near your location. You can also check out regional organic dairy producers and cooperatives, like the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, which offers featured farms to explore.


Image "IMG_0452" by UGA College of Ag & Environmental Science on Flickr used under a Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.