Part 1: Is Your Dairy USDA Certified Organic? Is That Enough?

Food For Thought Monday May 22, 2017

Part 1: Is Your Dairy USDA Certified Organic? Is That Enough?

By: Karen McDermott - Director of Digital and Social Media

Part 1 of our five part series “5 Things to Look For in the Dairy Aisle” begins with the question:

Is there a USDA Certified Organic label on the product? What kind of minimum guarantee is this seal?


Regulated by the USDA, this certification has strict standards that producers must adhere to. Regular inspections enforce these standards, some of which include:

-Prohibits the use of GMO feed

-Dairy animals must be fed and managed organically for at least one year prior to the production of organic milk.

-Ruminants must have access to pasture during the growing season and 30% of feed must come from grazing.

-Medical treatment cannot be withheld from sick animals to maintain the animals’ organic status.

Why It May Not Be Enough:

With the record-breaking growth of the organic dairy industry, large-scale production may result in cut corners. There’s a wide margin between what consumers expect from organic, and the reality.

For example, as it applies to dairy, the USDA specifies that cattle must be on pasture for 30% of their feed. For many consumers, this requirement ensures humane cow treatment (access to outdoors) and certain nutritional differences found in organic milk.

However, as a recent Washington Post article exhibits – size of herd matters here. Evidence points to large-scale farms having trouble meeting the minimum requirements for grazing. The USDA seal does not regulate the size of herds. Herd size is important because the nutritional profile in organic milk directly correlates to grazing time. The more time on grass, the better the profile for omega 3 to 6 ratio, beta carotene and CLA that organic consumers expect. While the regulations put in place under the USDA seal are extremely important for minimum quality, consumers must look for more, and consider that size matters.

At Maple Hill Creamery we source from over 100 individually owned small family farms in NY State. Our herd sizes average 55 cows per farm. Compare that to 112 cows per farm on average for NY State conventional dairy farms. And, as a whole, New York state dairies tend to be far smaller even by conventional standards than operations in the Mid-West and West. These operations can contain upwards of 10,000 cows on one farm (and still be USDA certified organic). Smaller herd size ensures that pasture management is do-able and cows will be able to graze for the maximum amount of time during the growing season. Cows also form complex relationships – in a herd size closer to the natural order, they can express those bonds. All of this is in addition to the guarantee of USDA certified organic.

Tune in tomorrow for the next installation of “5 Things to Look for in the Dairy Aisle” when we ask: Does your dairy claim to be grass-fed? If so, is it 3rd party-certified 100% grass-fed?