Grocery Store Earth Angst -- Tackling Some of Those Questions About Buying for Health and Environment
It seems like the more I get into eating and living earth-friendly and frugal, the more questions and doubts come up. Since yesterday was Earth Day, I set aside some time to track down answers to questions that nag me. (OK, I would have posted this yesterday, but the weather in Chicago was finally sunny and instead I had a long walk with my kids and a date with my husband.)
There are so many causes for confusion out there -- greenwashing (marketing that makes brands appear earth-friendly when they really aren't), labeling, standards and pricing. Throw in the need to shop on a budget -- $80 a week for our family of four -- and I feel like I need a PhD in both food science and math to make sense of it all. It certainly gives me an understanding for why more and more folks are growing their own food and even raising their own milk cows and laying hens.
Today I'm tackling the questions that nag me about buying dairy products, and in a future installment I'll take on my questions about poultry.
The questions: Am I doing the right thing by buying milk labeled "no added hormones?" Should I upgrade my purchases to the more expensive "organic" milk?
My answers: The Food and Drug Administration says that milk from cows injected with bovine growth hormone, aka BGH or BST, is safe. Here are some quotes from a scientist who agrees. Here on Wise Bread Paul Michael wrote a post awhile back challenging companies like Horizon that market their milk as superior because they don't use BGH. However, I feel enough doubts have been raised about the safety of milk from such cows that I don't want to feed it to my children, especially since milk from cows without hormone injections is readily available for similar prices. Sources of doubt include the suppressed reporting described in the film "The Corporation" and the fact that the hormones have been banned in other countries.
So I'd say: Yes, buying milk free of added hormones is a good move.
Organic milk, on the other hand, can cost three times as much as conventional, so it's a harder purchase decision. To be labeled organic, milk must come from cows that don't get hormone shots, don't get preventative antibiotics, eat organic feed or grass, and have access to pasture. After reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "Fast Food Nation," this sounds ideal to me. Once you read about conditions on feed lots, animal products raised in the conventional industrial way, whether meat or milk, sound less appealing for environmental reasons as well as cruelty and human health reasons. And nutritionists say the most nutritious milk come from cows that eat grass.
This post makes a good argument for buying organic milk on both environmental and health grounds.
Yet, the U.S. organic standards leave a lot of unanswered questions, such as A) Is antibiotic-free important? and B) What does access to pasture mean?
A) When cows are given antibiotics, residues of those drugs remain in the milk, but the FDA has set a threshhold below which it doesn't feel the antibiotic residues endanger the public. This University site discusses the dairy industry problem of milk with antibiotics exceeding the limits. My personal reaction to this is to say yes, I should buy organic milk. I don't have a lot of confidence in the FDA and its standards at this point in history. I'm concerned about the antibiotics my family is exposed to in our environment, and this seems like a good reason to purchase organic milk. I also like the idea of not supporting the overuse of antibiotics in industrial farming, for fear that these important drugs lose their power for all of us.
2) The "pasture" part of the FDA standard is so vague it's maddening. I'd like to think the cows for whose milk I'm paying a premium are living the way cows were meant to live, grazing freely in pastures and not confined to milking parlors. I'd like to think they aren't at high risk of getting sick because they're not confined to close quarters or fed corn that mucks up their digestive system.
The reality, at least at large industrial organic dairies, is nothing like that, according to this 2005 Salon piece about practices at Horizon, owned by Dean's. "Horizon cows graze for only four or five hours a day and during only three months in the summer," the piece alleges. The rest of the time, the cows are confined and fed grains.
My conclusion: Yes, buying organic milk is probably worth it, but not if you buy from companies that produce it industrially. I just won't pay triple the cost for a product that may only be marginally better. Which leaves me overwhelmed wondering what brand to buy, where to get it, and how to know if I'm really getting milk from grass-fed, humanely treated, cows raised in an earth-friendly manner -- but at least now that I've decided it's worth it, I can start reading up on what milk to buy and where to buy it.