Tuesday, June 24, 2008

two thousand words on milk

A while ago I wrote about a big debate that was raging in our house about whether or not we should be buying organic milk.

Like a lot of my neighbors and friends, I had the perception that organic milk was better than “regular” milk because it didn’t include hormones, antibiotics or pesticides (three items on my list of things I would rather my kids didn’t ingest). And as I wrote previously, we drink A LOT of milk in this house. Four litres every two or three days to be exact.

Here in Ontario (and presumably in a lot of other places) organic milk is twice the price of regular milk. While I value my children's health and well-being and would pay if there were serious issues, I needed to learn more about the benefits of organic milk.

I relied on the web to do a little research. There are a lot of sites that have opinions on organic milk. I tried to keep to credible sources. I also tried to narrow my search as much as possible to Canadian and Ontario milk.

The answers I found were surprising, and also raised more questions.

Interested? Read on.

The Business of Milk

According to the Dairy Farmers of Ontario, "milk is the most heavily safety-tested food in the Canadian food supply system. Ontario dairy farms are inspected regularly under Dairy Farmers of Ontario Raw Milk Quality Program to ensure that Ontario milk meets provincial standards. Inspectors ensure that all surfaces and equipment are clean and that milk is cooled efficiently. Inspectors also look for Grade A management practices such as good cow housing, sufficient pasture area and exclusion of milk from cows that are being treated for illness with drugs or antibiotics. "

Agriculture Canada says that "dairy production generates $4.84 billion in total farm cash receipts and $11.5 billion in manufacturing sales. The dairy industry ranks fourth in the Canadian agricultural sector following grains, red meats and horticulture...[and is] also renowned for the superior quality of its cattle herd. Canada exports genetic material to 84 different countries."

Milk is seriously big business.


The Canada Food Inspection Agency says this:

Milk shall not be sold that …[among other things] is contaminated by chemical, veterinary drug residue, inhibitory substance residue or any other foreign substance.

Natrel, a large milk producer (so take this for what it's worth), has interpreted the Dairy Farmers of Ontario and the Dairy Products Regulations Canada (Canada Agriculture Products Act) source information to come up with this:

Whether organic or non-organic, milk from a cow given antibiotics is discarded for a minimum of 2 days after the cow has finished its treatment. The amount of time a cow is taken out of the system, and the amount of antibiotic it is given is determined by a veterinarian, whether at an organic or non organic farm.

I'm going to assume that everyone follows these regulations. Which means that there are no antibiotic residues in our milk - either organic or regular.

Score one for regular milk.

rBGH free!

This section is for all my friends who don't want to give their kids regular milk because of fear of hormones.

The hormone that freaks everyone out has a name: recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (or rBGH for short). It’s also known as rbST. It's a big debate in the US because it's permitted there, and a lot of milk sold in the US has traces of rBGH. In Canada, however, this hormone was banned by the Canadian government in 1999.

The original press release appears to no longer be available, but I found references to the decision in a variety of places - two of which are Scientific American and here.

And again, Natrel is pretty emphatic in their FAQ:

The growth and lactation hormones (RBST, BST, RGBH or any other growth or lactation hormone) are illegal in Canada. ….No cow in Canada is allowed to be given these growth or lactation hormones and so no milk [organic or regular] in Canada contains any of these hormones*. The Canadian Dairy Farmers are one of the main lobbyists against allowing the use of growth or lactation hormones in Canada.

*emphasis is mine

I did discover, however, there are six hormones that are allowed in beef in Canada. Three are natural (progesterone, testosterone and estradiol-17ß; ) and three are synthetic (trenbolone acetate (TBA), zeranol and melengestrol acetate (MGA). Supposedly the synthetic ones are more stable analogs of the three natural ones, according to a report by the Center for Global Food Issues, which provides an interesting US perspective on the allowable hormones.

I’m choosing to believe that the actual danger of these hormones is minimal (especially the natural ones), thanks to an article written for Nursing BC around the time that rBGH was banned in Canada.

Score two for regular milk.

What about pesticides?

I will admit that the data for this section has so far been tough to find, and most of the conclusions are drawn from verbal sources. By using the terms [pesticide residue in milk Canada] I got a lot of links to pesticides in breast milk, plus a link to the Total Diet Studies carried out by Health Canada. They list the amount of pesticides detected in a number of foods for various regions, but did not list pesticides in milk specifically.

I have been told that cows who produce organic milk are either grass-fed or fed pesticide-free grain, whereas cows that produce non-organic milk may not be. I say "may not" because I know from speaking with my cousin in Alberta (who grows feed barley) that they do not use pesticides. I need to learn more about pesticide use in Ontario. Could it be, as she says, that "[p]esticides control nasty bugs, which thanks to our winters, Canada doesn't have much of...". That would be ideal.

I found this information about pesticides in grass and soil:

According to the Organic Center : about 95 percent of the residues found [in a 2004 test of milk] were DDE, a breakdown product of the well-known chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticide DDT, which was banned from agricultural use in the early 1970s. If the Organic Center report is to believed, both conventional and organic farmers can do little to avoid the DDE residues in milk since it is crops AND grasses and can be found in the fat of virtually all people and dairy cattle around the world..Moreover, according to their study, the bigger pesticide health risk is in vegetables and fruits, as the levels of pesticide residue were higher in those items than in milk.

On a Canadian site I found this quote:

If the same levels of DDT found in human breast milk were found in cow's milk today, the product would be banned. -- Plan B Organic Farms, Hamilton “What’s the Deal with Pesticides?”)

I’m still waiting for an e-mail response to a question about the original source.

Until I can get better data, I think my conclusion here is this: it seems like whether you buy organic or non-organic milk, there are pesticides. I guess the question is “in what quantity?

In the End

My search (as sleep deprived and limited by the web as it might be) has helped me decide that the key differences I thought existed between organic and regular milk just are not there.

I won't argue that organic milk has nutritional benefits. However, my kids have a pretty balanced diet filled with fruits vegetables and other meats, so the additional health benefits of organic milk are less appealing to me.

For now, unless someone can convince me otherwise, my decision is to stick to regular milk (in recyclable containers) as often as possible, and save the money I would spend on organic milk for other things.

If anyone has any other constructive thoughts, I'd love to hear them....

FINAL DISCLAIMER: I do not profess to be a milk expert, or an organics expert, or a nutrition expert. I was just interested in seeing what information I could find about the differences between organic milk and regular, or conventional milk. Other people have found and may find additional information. I just had to stop researching and start writing at some point)


Allison said...

Perhaps the most interesting comment my husband Michael (a grain farmer) made on this question was to quote his dad, who said that years ago when everyone's milk was strictly farm-cow raised, you could hardly drink it in the spring month when stink weed was prevelant ... the milk tasted so off. Maybe all the hormones, pesticides, herbicides, etc aren't the only enemy? :)

Great info Avra ... my favourite milk has still been the non-pastuerized, non-homogenized, skim-off-your-own-cream milk we used to be able to get from a neighbour. Sigh.

Patric said...

Very interesting... you've done a good job of bringing it all together!

I did a recent internet blitz and was surprised at the lack of credible sources out there talking about the difference... I'll stick to organic for now until there is more information to sway me one way or the other...

Anonymous said...

I love the fact that regular people are now starting to take control of what they injest by spending time to do research, as limited as it may be. There was one part where you discussed that pasture was needed to be available for the cows, stated by Dairy Farmers of Ontario. Having it available doesn't mean it's used unfortunately. This summer I visited a dairy farm just outside of pembroke ontario and it did not permit their cows to leave the high tech barn. The cows options were to lie down on rubber mattresses right beside their feed or back up and then walk up and down the barn. Every few hours or so an automatic scraper would slowly drag itself across the ground, wether the cow was standing or sitting and it would scrape the poo and urine to one end of the barn. The floor was concrete. The pregnant cows were kept separate on the right side of the barn so that the feed wasn't mixed with the feed of non pregnant cows. Apparently the feed for the non pregnant cows is too potent somehow and could kill the pregnant cow. Also, a concrete lagoon is located just outside the barn that is full of the manure and urine and not useful for sale to other farmers for their soils because it would kill their crops.
I've learned that the term organic can sometimes be misleading. I think for myself and our family, I prefer to keep a local relationship with farmers so that I can decide if their practice, organic or not is something I deem acceptable. I wish raw milk was an option for us in ontario...I often contemplate owning my own cow for that reason! haha!
In the meantime I also will buy organic. I just simply do not trust what is published by Dairy Farmers of Ontario and the Milk Marketing Board. A good example is the issue of raw milk. If it truly was a food safety issue then why is it legal to drink it if yoy own the cow? Does ownership negate the fact that it is dangerous? Will it not still be able to make me sick if not handled properly? Our farmers are allowed to drink it. Do their families not fall under the same food protection as every other canadian citizen? I think this is more of an issue about competition in the markets. We sell raw meat...we can sell raw milk. The handling of the product is what's important.
Anyway, thanks for sharing and keep on researching. I highly recommend two books. Death By Supermarket by Nancy Deville and Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. Many of the commentaries are American based but are definitely relatable to canadian policy.
Stacey Haley

Sally (Toronto, Canada) said...

I think it is important to remember that milk IS a hormonal food for a baby. There is actually NO SUCH THING as "hormone free milk". Just because the synthetic version of a very naturally present hormone is not allowed here, in the EU or Australia/New Zealand does not mean our milk has no hormones. We have Human Growth Hormone in our breast milk and cows have Bovine Growth Hormone. We both also have IGF (insulin growth factor) but it is MUCH higher in bovines. These have both been linked to breast and prostate cancer. My mother was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer and given one year to live. She read a book by Professor Jane Plant "Your Life in Your Hands" (which I urge everyone to read because prevention really is the best cure) that discusses this in great length. Well within six weeks of giving up all forms of dairy and red meat my mother's tumors had shrunk considerably. This October will be her 10th year as a survivor. With no surgery or chemo. And her story is not unique. There are thankfully many dairy alternatives out there and it is incredibly easy to get all the nutrients and calcium from other sources, such as leafy green vegetables, soy, almond and hemp milks

Olga said...

Thanks for all the information. My main interest in organic milk is that I am specifically looking for grass fed whole milk from pastured cows. Organic or otherwise. There is enough good research showing that when cows eat their natural food (grass) the fats produced are of better quality. Specifically, with a better omega 6 to 3 ratio. And the milk tastes better.
If you look on Organic Meadow's FAQ page:


They state that their milk is primarily pasture fed. I don't see the same claims on either of the big producers Neilson and Natrel. So on this basis it may still be worth the while to buy organic.

One thing I think is odd is why Naturel paturizes and filters their milk. Companies that filter milk, claim that it removes more bacteria than pasteurization, then why bother with pasteurization at all? Just filter it. I would think that filtered only, milk would offer a good compromise for those that want raw milk, yet satisfying the authorities who want to see sterilized milk. Thanks again.