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Organic milk is milk taken from cattle and other milk animals which have been raised in accordance with organic standards. Tests conducted on organic and conventionally produced milk have shown no noticeable nutritional or safety differences between the two, with consumers opting for organic milk over conventional milk for a variety of reasons, ranging from ethical concerns to perceived taste differences. Many markets carry organic milk and other organic dairy products, or can order them by request for customers.
Several criteria must be met for animals which produce milk certified as organic. The animals must eat feed which has been raised in accordance with organic principles, which means that it should not be treated with pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals. Organic milk can come from animals grazing on grass, or animals eating hay and grain, as long as the fodder is organic.
Additionally, organic animals must have access to pasture. There has been some controversy about this requirement, as for consumers it conjures up the idea of a herd of animals wandering freely across a lush green pastures, while for farmers it may simply mean that a small pasture area is maintained outside the barn, and a door is left open periodically so that the animals have the option of reaching it. Likewise, animals can be rotated between pasture and barn and still considered organic, as can animals kept confined on feedlots which may lack natural grass, but could still be considered “pasture.”
The animals cannot be treated with antibiotics for their milk to be considered organic, and if an animal is given antibiotics to treat a health condition, there is a waiting period before her milk will be organic. Organic cows also cannot be given bovine growth hormone (BGH) or recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to stimulate milk production.
The dairy industry argues that there are few quality differences between organic milk and conventional milk. The flavors of both can vary widely, depending on what the animals eat, and the safety of both is assured through tests which are designed to identify contaminants in milk. However, some consumers feel that organic products are more ethical, because they associate organic means of production with humane treatment of animals, and others may be opposed to the use of chemicals in agriculture, opting for products made without these chemicals to send a message to the agriculture industry.
Consumers should be aware that organic milk is often more expensive than conventional milk, and that due to the fact that the organic standards are vague, the ethical differences between organic and conventional milk are sometimes very small indeed.