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Leon Kaye headshot

Investigation Raises Questions About USDA Organic Milk Certification

By Leon Kaye

Organic milk is a huge business. While recent U.S. government statistics show a short-term dip in sales, estimates suggest that annual sales in this sector total more than $40 million annually.

Concerns over the nation’s food supply -- along with the widely-held belief that cows grazing on grass and organic feed results in a more healthful and nutritious product compared to conventional milk-- have together driven consumers to pay a far higher premium for organic dairy products at retail chains from Whole Foods to Target. The organic milk business is especially booming in California, as production figures suggest another large jump in production and sales from the previous year.

But a Washington Post investigation published this week warns consumers that they may be paying for a product that does not meet their expectations.

The Post, led by reporter Peter Whoriskey, visited the operations of Aurora Organic Dairy, located outside of Greeley, Colorado, last year. Aurora’s milk is sold as a private-label product at chains including Costco and Walmart. Whoriskey and his team, however, allege that customers may not be purchasing the exact product for which they paid.

Certified organic dairies are mandated to have their cows graze regularly during the growing season instead of being confined to feedlots or barns. But at a dairy complex that boasts as many as 15,000 cows, the newspaper’s investigative team only saw a few hundred cows grazing, at most. Satellite photos taken last July confirmed the team’s suspicion that only 10 percent of the herd was out grazing at any given point in time.

The newspaper then asked dairy technology scientists at Virginia Tech to analyze eight brands of milk that were produced during the grazing season. Researchers tested for milk substances including conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), which tend to appear at higher levels in organic milk than in conventional products. The tests revealed that while organic brands such as Prigel Family Creamery, Snowville Creamery and Horizon Organics scored relatively high, the levels in Aurora’s milks were not much higher than the private-label conventional brands sold at Whole Foods and Safeway.

Conversely, linoleic acid -- an omega-6 fat -- tends to be found at a lower level in milks that are pasture fed; conventional milks often have high levels of this substance. But Aurora’s milk tested higher on that metric than the conventional Whole Foods and Safeway milks.

So, what’s going on? The Post concluded that the rising popularity of organic milk has resulted in the rapid expansion of dairy operations, especially in western states. And in the effort to expand and meet consumer demand, some dairies are cutting corners. Small organic dairy farmers -- who face more regulations and higher costs -- have long complained that these larger operations, like Aurora, are violating organic farming guidelines.

Another problem is that the USDA’s rules covering the inspection of organic dairy farms are hardly stringent. Only 1 in 20 inspections are actually unannounced; in fact, farmers can hire their own inspectors from a list of private firms and organizations that are licensed by the USDA, and those visits can be scheduled days or even weeks in advance.

In sum, if a dairy company does not like the results of one organization’s inspection, it can simply hire another to find the results the company wants.

The USDA says it audits those inspectors’ records every two and half years. But in the case of Aurora, it is obvious that some inspections are falling through the cracks.

These problems bedeviling the USDA’s organic inspection process are hardly new. A 2013 internal review of the USDA’s internal processes revealed that inspectors conducting annual reviews did not always take consistent enforcement actions when violations were found. Part of the problem was confusion over the rules and what actions needed to be taken in the event of noncompliance.

“This can lead to organic milk operations shopping for agents who are lax in their classification of issues identified in the yearly inspection process or who do not take the appropriate enforcement actions,” the USDA report concluded.

Aurora has denied the accusations raised by the Post, and sought to rebut the investigative team’s conclusions one by one. But the paper also mentioned that Aurora has been the subject of suspected rules violations in the past. As far back as 2007, the USDA accused the dairy of “willful violations” of organic guidelines. That case was resolved, and Aurora’s business continued to grow at a healthy pace.

Whether or not consumers are really hurt by these findings is anyone’s guess. Assessments of organic versus conventional milk are all over the map, though the consensus is that the fatty acids more prevalent in organic dairy products provide for a more healthful option in the cereal bowl or smoothie.

The obvious hurt is in consumers’ pocketbooks, as they may be paying far too much for a product that does not provide the benefits advertised.

But those who are really harmed are the small organic dairy farmers who play by the rules, only to see their margins squeezed as larger operations have the ability to scale and force down milk prices. And that discrepancy should be enough to spur the USDA to take its organic inspection guidelines far more seriously, instead of allowing them to be outsourced and become subjected to what can be viewed as a pay-for-play scheme.

Image credit: NRCS Oregon

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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