After picking up a carton of organic milk from the local grocer, it’s easy to get a case of the warm-and-fuzzies: The purchase provides health, environmental, and animal rights benefits while also supporting local and family farms. Right?

We hate to break it to you, but unfortunately not all organic milk is created equal. Some of it really does come from small, family farms that graze their smiling cows on rolling, grass-laden pastures. But due to a loophole in the organic certification criteria for dairy products, some organic milk comes from factory farms where thousands upon thousands of cows are raised and milked in depressing indoor feedlots—an image that completely contradicts what “organic” represents.

But now, the Department of Agriculture has taken steps to change that horrifying situation, issuing draft rules that would require that cows get at least 30% of their intake from grass and be on pasture for at least 120 days a year. Current law only requires that cows be fed organic grains (in addition to being hormone- and antibiotic-free)—there are no specifications for how cows should be raised.

The rules come after years of outcry from farmers and organic food advocates. For those unfamiliar with the controversy, here’s a little background. From the Associated Press:

"The issue started to boil over a few years ago when it emerged that a handful of large dairy farms with thousands of cows, mostly in arid Western states, were feeding their cows organic grain but keeping them largely confined to feedlots while selling the milk as organic.

The Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute helped lead the charge, mainly against two companies: Aurora Organic Dairy, which produces private-label organic milk for national and local retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Costco Wholesale Co., and Safeway Inc.; and Horizon Organic, the largest national organic dairy brand and a unit of Fort Worth based-Dean Foods Co., the country’s largest dairy processor and distributor."

The public has until December 23 to comment on the draft rules, but we’re guessing no one (besides factory farm bigwigs, that is) will oppose: In an earlier public comment period, only 28 comments out of more than 80,500 were against the new criteria.

Right now, only about 4 or 5 percent of dairy products sold are certified organic, but the numbers have been growing steadily. And let’s face it: That organic seal doesn’t come cheap. But if new rules are implemented, conscious consumers can finally be sure that their extra bucks are supporting a cow and family farmer-friendly industry.

Story by Sarah Parsons. This article originally appeared in Plenty in November 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

New, stricter standards for organic milk
Unfortunately, not all "organic" milk is created equal. The Department of Agriculture is adding regulations to ensure that true organic practices are used.