Milky Matters: Organic or Not?

Organic vs Non Organic Milk
Milky Matters: Organic or Not?

Parenting dilemmas are to be expected. But in the dairy aisle?

From day one, we worry about milk and it never really goes away. The big question today is should we buy organic or conventional milk? So we asked the experts, the producers, and the processors and we milked their insight for all it’s worth.

Organic dairies and conventional dairies start with the same essential ingredient: a healthy cow. From there things differ, and can have an impact on what goes into the milk, how it’s processed, how it tastes and how long it stays fresh.

What makes organic milk organic?
In Canada, all organic products, including milk, are certified by the government’s Canada Organic Regime. Milk is certified as organic if it was produced following organic farming practices. Some of these include obtaining milk from cows given access to pasture as often as possible (some up to 22 hours a day), providing them with organic feed that does not consist of any harmful pesticides, chemicals, fertilizers, or genetically modified ingredients, and removing any cow treated by antibiotics from the herd for an extended period. 

Conventional dairy farms, which are also regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, may follow some or many of the same practices. Canada, unlike the US and other countries, strictly prohibits the use of BVH (bovine growth hormones—used to increase production of milk) for all dairies, whether organic or conventional. So the good news here is that concerns about any growth hormones and their effects on young children do not apply to any Canadian milk, conventional or organic.

Why the big debate then?
Concerns over antibiotics in milk is another big reason why some parents are drawn to buy organic. Like their human counterparts, dairy cows are susceptible to infections, most commonly mastitis (yes, cows get it too). Organic farms use antibiotics as a last resort, opting for homeopathic remedies first, but if antibiotics must be used to maintain quality of life for the cow, they will be. If the animal is put back into the herd, its milk will not be used for sale for a minimum of 14 to 30 days or longer after the final treatment (on some organic farms, it will never be used for milk production again).

In conventional dairies, the cow is removed from milk production generally for two to five days after the final treatment of medication. Worth pointing out is that in both organic and non-organic dairy farms, if any trace of antibiotics is found in the milk during the quality test at the time of tank pick up, the farmer is responsible for buying the contaminated tank back. So it’s not in any farmer’s interest to sell milk containing antibiotics.

What about taste?
Does it seem like milk expiration dates go on forever these days? When it comes to shelf life, many organic (and some conventional) dairies use a process known as “high temperature, short period” (HTSP) meaning the milk is heated quickly for about 15 or 16 seconds to ensure any bacteria are destroyed.

Conventional farms are more likely to use ultra-high temperature (UHT), which uses a higher boiling point than HTSP and in so doing allows for a longer shelf life. So if you’ve been wondering why your milk is good for longer periods than some other brands, it’s been processed using UHT. The lower boiling point of HTSP is appealing to many organic producers like Canada’s Organic Meadow, because of a general preference to keep the original product as unchanged as possible (though some organic producers use UHT as well). The heat can also affect the taste, which is why milk can taste different from producer to producer, whether organic or not.

Got milk? Great. It’s good for developing minds and bodies and brains. As far as the organic milk versus conventional milk debate goes, it looks like we’re lucky as Canadians to have two good choices. We say feel good about the fact that you’re armed with knowledge so you can make your own informed decision. Tested by Alison R., Toronto

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First published 2011.05.10

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