To label milk “organic,” the US Department of Agriculture mandates that cows graze fresh grass in fertilizer-free, open-air pastures.
Consumers can pay twice as much for certified organic milk compared to non-organic milk. But according to a new investigation by The Washington Post’s Peter Whoriskey, some organic dairy farms may not be adhering to USDA standards.
In 2016, the Post visited Aurora Organic Dairy in Greeley, Colorado — a facility that supplies organic milk to major retailers like Walmart and Costco. Whoriskey found about 90% of its cows were indoors — not grazing on pastures— over the span of his eight-day visit. Testing by Virginia Tech scientists also revealed that on a key indicator of grass-feeding, Aurora milk matched normal milk, not organic.
After visits to seven other farms in Texas and New Mexico in 2015, another Post reporter saw similarly vacant pastures.
Though dairy farms can make more money by selling organic milk, the process of organic certification is time-consuming and costly. Transitioning to a certified-organic farm takes three years, and the certification ranges from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.
To enforce organic regulations, the USDA lets farmers hire and pay their own inspectors to certify them as “organic,” which saves the agency money. But the Post reports that even large farms like Aurora can go without being inspected as they should — while also not following organic standards.
After contacting Aurora’s inspectors, the Post found the inspectors performed the farm’s annual audit well after grazing season, making it impossible to know whether the cows were actually grazing. This is a violation of USDA policy.
This also means that milk from these farms that are labeled “organic” might not actually be organic, even if consumers pay more for it. The US organic market is worth more than $40 billion in annual sales and includes products imported from about 100 countries, according to the Post. Organic dairy sales totaled $6 billion last year in the US.
That said, American consumers are drinking more milk than in years past, and some are switching to plant-based alternatives, like soy and almond milk. While the consumption of dairy milk declined 13% from 2011 to 2015, plant-based dairy alternatives have grown into a $1.4 billion industry.
In 2010, the USDA tightened its standards on what is considered “organic” milk. According to the new regulations, cows must spend at least four months out of the year grazing in pastures. The Post visited during grazing season in August, September, and October.
Aurora spokeswoman Sonja Tuitele told the Post that its visits were “drive-bys” and not evident of the farm’s practices.
“The requirements of the USDA National Organic Program allow for an extremely wide range of grazing practices that comply with the rule,” Tuitele said.