When you next see an ad for dairy products showing happy cows grazing peacefully in pastures, take a deep breath and realize that what you're seeing is mostly fantasy.
Sadly, most cows these days never get to set a foot on the grass, much less eat lovely clover or enjoy the shade of a tree. Mostly, they live in cow factories, which the industry calls "confined feeding operations." That means standing in a stall with just enough space to lie down, eating a diet designed to maximize their output of milk. It's a cruel fate for creatures that are rightly worshiped in India, because cows are able to transform plants that are indigestible to us into food we can eat. Indeed, human civilization could not exist without cows.
I've long suspected that cows who get to graze on pasture probably produced more nutritious milk, but now there's proof that this is true. As part of a cross-European study, researchers at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom have found that cows that graze on grass produce milk with healthier fatty acids and higher levels of fat soluble vitamins and antioxidents. Of course, they've also not been fed antibiotics or hormones that otherwise would get passed along to us.
How can you get your hands on milk from grazing cows? The surest way is to buy certified organic milk, if you can afford the premium price. According to Mark Kastel, codirector of The Cornucopia Institute, a farm and food policy research group, "the vast majority of brand name organic milk comes from cows that were given the opportunity to graze on fresh pasture whenver possible."
But "vast majority" doesn't mean all. Aurora Organic Dairy, which provides private-label organic milk for stores such as Wal-Mart and Target, has been found to be in violation of organic standards, including not putting them out to pasture sufficiently. Cornucopia also charges that Dean Foods' farms, which markets organic milk under the Horizon brand, also does not give its cows enough access to pasture.
The Cornucopia Institute has ranked producers of organic milk based on a 19-question survey it sent them. Its rating system is based on factors including whether the farm is run by a resident family and whether it gets all of its milk from its own herds or buys some of it on the open market, meaning the source of that milk could be a factory operation. Makers of cheese and other dairy products are included, so you will find, for example, that Ben & Jerry's ice cream gets a 3-cow rating (5 is the best).
Unfortunately, none of the grocery chains that sell private label organic milk thought fit to respond to the survey, so Cornucopia's researchers used enforcement records from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and industry sources to get information.
If you find your local brand in this category of non-respondents, try telling your local store manager, filling in a comment form, or sending a letter to the corporate office. At stake here isn't just honesty: if factory farms are able to sell their product as organic, they will muscle out of business the families that really do care for and about their animals. For food security, we can't allow that to happen!