Grocery Store Earth Angst -- Tackling Some of Those Questions About Buying for Health and Environment

Photo: TAYLOR149

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.

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Guest's picture

Great post!

I'm with you, although probably a little more skeptical about things the government tells us are safe. I mean, the Surgeon General used to tell us that smoking was safe! And until a few years ago, there was no such thing as global warming! Science is way ahead of the while I don't get panicky about every little study that comes out, I definitely pay attention.

Organic foods are more expensive, but when you get to a point where no pre-made, pre-packaged "convenience" foods end up in your shopping cart, the expense balances out.

Myscha Theriault's picture

Hi Carrie.

I go through similar turmoil when I shop. It really is enough to make your eyes cross and your head start to hurt. For extra fun, I am trying to reduce my plastic consumption. OMG, what a pain. It's EVERYWHERE. Even on the healthier products. On the west coast, they seem to have access to these wonderful markets where everything comes in bulk bins and tanks where you can buy what you need in your own container. This includes lotions, olive oil, honey, etc. The stores here have a few bins, but not nearly the same level of selection. There are also a few farmers markets, but they are not all that close.

We have a few other couples and some additional single friends we do things with occasionally, and to justify the trip to shop at some of these places we've been discussing trying some of them out as a day trip or outing that we can all go on. Since every family tends to spend a bit of cash when they are out and about anyway, this way we can all feel like we're participating in a day outing that supports what we are all trying to do and the money that gets spent is towards the grocery budget. Not a foolproof plan, and certainly not a plan we'll be able to use for all of our shopping. But it's a step in the right direction that provides some sort of outing when we get stir crazy.

Fred Lee's picture

Great points about milk. A touchy issue, but we've found that we're much more picky about what we feed our kids, under the assumption that we adults are poisoned beyond the point of redemption so we can eat whatever we want. But kids have a clean slate, so why not get them started on the right foot?

Antibiotics are a touchy issue. The problem is, cows get mastitis, it's a fact of nature that every mom who breastfeeds can relate to. When they get it, the usual course of treatment is to give them antibiotics, the same as they do for humans. The problem is, once they do that, the milk is no longer organic. To aggravate the situation, antibiotics also, for whatever reason, make the cows produce more milk. They are also used, as Michael Pollan points out (great book, BTW), to compensate cows for their poor diets. I.e., when cows are fed diets they weren't meant to eat, they get sick, and they pump them up with antibiotics. So now we have cows that are given tons of antibiotics for reasons other than what they were meant for, and that's not the kind of milk you want to give your kids.

What we also have a great deal of concern for are hormones. The reason to give rBGH is sketchy, because my understanding is that there is NOT a shortage of milk out there, so there is no reason to inject cows with growh hormones to produce more milk. Whatever the reason, milk from cows with growth hormones makes me wonder what effect it might have on kids. We already know that government organizations will alter what they say to placate big industry, or on the flip side, not offend. Just look at the evolution of the food pyramid as an example of this. So we can't count on the FDA to always look out for our best interest. That is not to say they are useless, they do serve an important function, it's just that in this case, it is up to the consumer to know.

The question is, how does it affect kids? With the increasing incidence of precocious puberty, especially in girls, it worries me.

So for these reasons, we drink local milk, not always organic, but from a local processor that we know and trust. Fortunately, living in Vermont, we have access to these things, but if this wasn't the case, then hands down we would buy organic milk. It's just not worth it to us save a few dollars and feed our kids certain things.

Anyway, thanks for the insightful piece. It spoke to me.

Guest's picture

I don't know what it is however, if I drink rBGH milk I get a stomach ache or worse (nothing serious - just out of commission for the afternoon as pain laces through me). I have been told by a stomach doctor it has to to with the enzymes in the milk of cows given hormones.

As far as how to avoid the large brands like Horizon.... I admit we're lucky. We have a Whole Foods on the other side of town so once a month we make the trek there & stock up on the basics. The milk seems to last longer so we can buy about 5-6 gallons that are good for a month & a half. Yes, I know that chain is supposedly evil & in other places exspensive - the one here isn't as long as you buy stuff you cook from scratch with & there's no where else to go for organic. Can ya tell I've been attacked in the past for going there???
I've tried three times to find a local farmer(I'm in the midwest) and I simply can't find one that will do a local sale... it was really frustrating. I foudn one goat dairy but they used all their milk to make soap to sell in the Internet & they didn't want to mess with bottles even though I offered to filter the milk myself (I grew up in a dairy).
To avoid the big brands you could try posting on Criags list to see if anyone knows of anywhere(like a local farmer who doesn't advertise)... there's a farmers market here 3 months out of the year, I'm hoping maybe to find a source for organic milk & meat this year. I've been trying for four or five years now.

As far as why add hormones & such if there's no milk shortage??? Govt subsidies! Just like if you grow more of a certain type of grain you get more $, the same goes for milk. The more milk produced the more the farmer gets & it's not linked at all to supply & demand thanks to our govt.

Guest's picture

i buy organic valley milk from whole foods. i live in ny metro new jersey, and wf is actually pretty convenient to me. according to their copy on the carton, they are a cooperative of local dairies (for me it's in vermont). they do not have a us organic label, but the do list "oregon tilth certified organic." i had done some surface research to see if they are the real deal (don't remember where i looked), and they seem legit. if you can find this, it's a good price for organic milk and tastes great. (i do not work for them in any way). also, a couple of books along the lines of omnivore's dilemma that talk about milk and organic foods are "the real food revival" by sherri brooks vinton and ann clark espuelas and real food by nina planck. :-)

Guest's picture

I simply have lost all faith in the FDA.

We are extremely lucky here. There is a small-scale dairy farm in a neighboring county who sells direct. He even makes a delivery run to the two nearby counties every other week.

The only drawback is that skim milk is not offered.

And the poster above is right about Organic Valley - great products.

Guest's picture

We buy hormone free milk from a nearby dairy that sells in some of the grocery stores. They package in glass bottles and it is a small family operation. The milk also tastes great.

We had been using organic from an organic company over in Iowa but we had a couple of bottles that were bad right from the store and then they had a recall due to not getting milk pasturized right. It also cost quite a bit more than the hormone free in glass bottles.

I found Sam's mention that hormone laced milk makes him sick. I can't drink it either, it makes my throat itch.

Guest's picture

If any thing is distributed freely (without any cost), there is always something drowbacks hidden with it. As in hormone free milk.

So, concern to quality not others.

Guest's picture

Milk is definitely much more expensive here where I live if you get organic. One of the things that surprises me is how many people worry about buying organic this and that, but don't breastfeed their kids. They give them formula, which is way worse and full of chemicals than breastmilk, and some use soy formula, which has natural estrogen in it, which is not what babies need. Hurray to all moms that breastfeed!!

Guest's picture

about Fred's point about mastitis - my understanding was that the organic standards don't allow for generalized antibiotic use to promote growth, but do allow for treatment of cows that are sick. That's the difference between breeding superbugs and actually supporting minimal animal welfare - it's actually the same standard good pediatricians use for earaches and the flu.

But when I tried to look on the 'net to make sure I was right about organic practice instead of just the wording of the standards. I found lots of obfuscatory sites and no information I could be sure of. Still, at least the wording of the standards -"no preventative antibiotics" doesn't prevent treating sick animals.

It is hard to balance organic vs. budget. Especially right now. In a month there will be lots of cheap local organic vegetables (some in my yard!) but right now we are very, very, very tired of cabbage, potatos, and beans. At least there are early spinach and pea greens this week.

Guest's picture

We buy Organic Valley as well... actually a local natural grocery chain here in Portland, New Seasons, carries the same milk as their store organic brand -- a bit cheaper and from the same supplier.

In terms of hormones versus antibiotics versus pasture, I know I don't have all the details. But I can tell you this, compared to Organic Valley, regular milk tastes like ass. We've actually conducted blind taste tests with cheaper milk in our family. The FDA can say what they want (and as far as I'm concerned they will anyway) but if "normal" milk tastes like thin chemically plastic, why would I want it?

Guest's picture

Carrie, you did the right thing-- time with your husband and kids was more important than this post being up yesterday.

My view of this stuff is that it is all just a marketer's dream . . . much like bottled water. The markups are phenomenal (according to a NY Times article, Sticker Shock in the Organic Aisle, Apr. 18, 2008, "Organic food is typically 20 percent to 100 percent more expensive than a conventional counterpart . . ."). Who is really benefiting from organic food?

Here are more of my thoughts on this one with a link to the NY Times article:
The Great Organic Food Swindle

Guest's picture

Just a correction about point 2) and cows being "confined to milking parlors". All cows end up in milking parlors when they are actually being milked (and, maybe if they're dry, they end up standing there for a bit while the cows around them are milked). These places are cramped, but that's so that the cows can be milked efficiently and without hurting themselves, other cows, or the farmers who are doing the milking should one of the cows get spooked. There's enough room for the cows to shift around a little. Think about it like being in a crowded subway car. Not fun, but it's only for a short time, so no big deal.
The thing is, the cows are not confined to milking parlors 24-7. They file in, get milked and then return to the pens/pasture/whatever. The whole process takes maybe 15 minutes (and I'm remembering from time spent on my uncle's dairy farm when I was a that's 20+ years ago and things have probably speeded up since then). Most cows are milked 2-3 times a day.

Carrie Kirby's picture

My parents have a cabin in dairy country in Wisconsin, and whenever we go up there we do see SOME cows -- both dairy and beef cattle -- grazing in fields. But we also see open-sided milking parlors with cows standing in them at ALL times of day. I never remember seeing one empty. My dad worked on a dairy farm in this area decades ago, and he said this is a big change -- they USED to put them in stalls just for milking, but not anymore.

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Guest's picture
Bert M

Thanks for the well-written clarification of organic vs. non-organic. I was struggling with the same question, more so than ever, because I'm pregnant.

Guest's picture

As you mentioned, industrial organic is not all it's cracked up to be. According to my research, two brands of organic milk that are also grass-fed are Organic Valley and Natural by Nature. Organic Valley cows must be pastured 120 days a year. Natural by Nature sounds even better, but seems less widely available. Hope this helps!

Carrie Kirby's picture

Organic Valley does sound better than what I've read about the other big producers -- 120 days a year is something, at least. And Organic Valley even puts out coupons, which the bargain shopper in me adores.

I blog at