A recent study of organic versus conventional milk revealed the majority of samples of conventional milk showed signs of food contamination. The food safety study found levels of pesticides, illegal antibiotics, and growth hormones in conventional milk. Meanwhile, the organic samples showed no signs, or much lower levels, of contamination.
Pesticides and Other Food Contamination
A Washington D.C.-based nonprofit called The Organic Center funded the study at Emory University. The findings are fairly disturbing and paint a picture of more rampant food contamination in milk than has been previously measured.
Comparing the contamination levels, the study found organic milk to contain contaminants at much lower rates than conventional milk, if at all. For the purposes of the study, the samples were blindly tested. A blind test means researchers are not aware of the labels. In this case, “organic” or “conventional” as they pertained to the samples. In a blind test, researchers find out the labels after they obtain results.
According to the study:
- 60% of conventional milk samples showed antibiotic residue
- Antibiotics found in conventional milk samples include:
- Atrazine (in 26% of samples)
- Chlorpyrifos (59%)
- Cypermethrin (49%)
- Diazinon (60%)
- Permethrin (46%)
- Some of the antibiotics present in the conventional milk samples are illegal for use in dairy animals: sulfamethazine and sulfathiazole.
- One conventional sample tested positive for levels of the legal amoxicillin in higher than FDA tolerance levels.
- Bovine growth hormones appear in conventional samples 20 times more often than in organic samples.
What Kind of Milk May be Contaminated?
The study tested both conventional and organic milk samples for the express purposes of comparing food contamination in the two production methods. Researchers collected the milk samples in August 2015 from nine areas across the country. These locations include:
- Great Lakes
- New England
- Rocky Mountain
Researchers purchased eight half-gallon containers in retail stores throughout each region. The goal being to create a sample that represents what American households buy across the country.
- Six were 2% milk (the kind of milk most American children drink)
- Three were labeled USDA Certified Organic
- Three were conventional brands
- Two were whole milk samples, one conventional and one organic
The Difference between Organic and Conventional Milk
Organic milk must be certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in order to display the green-and-white “USDA Organic” label. To become certified, dairy farmers must comply with unwavering USDA codes and standards including:
- Managing the herd organically for one year prior to certification
- Feeding cows only feed that is also certified organic
- Not using any growth hormones
- Not using any antibiotics during milk production
Conventionally managed dairy cows may be treated with antibiotics during milk production as necessary. Organic dairy farmers may not withhold antibiotics from a sick dairy cow, but using the antibiotic disqualifies the animal from producing any milk that could be labeled “organic.”
As such, researchers are not surprised to find that organic milk samples did not contain antibiotics. Organic milk should not be produced using antibiotics in the first place. The truly surprising and disturbing results were those that showed the evidence of pesticides and illegal antibiotic contamination.
Different Types of Food Contamination in Milk
Antibiotic Food Contamination
The presence of antibiotics in conventional milk is not necessarily an indicator of illegal antibiotic use. The FDA prescribes tolerance levels of licit antibiotics for conventional dairy animals. Illegal antibiotics are only prohibited for use on animals actively producing milk at the time of application. Cows treated with illegal antibiotics as calves could still have traces of contamination from the drug when they start producing milk.
Hormone Food Contamination
The study found cow-derived hormones in both conventional and organic milk samples. Conventional samples had hormone contamination in much higher levels, however. Like all animals, cows produce natural hormones that are detectable in milk. Researchers suggest the noticeable difference in hormones in conventional versus organic milk may mean that conventional dairy cows are treated with synthetic hormones. This can help stimulate production of natural hormones. There is not currently a way to test for which hormones are natural or synthetic.
Pesticide Food Contamination
One pesticide found in conventional milk is chlorpyrifos, has been under great scrutiny. California plans to ban it beginning in May, 2020. Farmers use chlorpyrifos mostly on row crops like corn and soybeans, as well as on grass. The pesticide can get into cows’ milk when cows consume feed or graze pastures treated with the pesticide.
A First-of-its-Kind Study
Researchers published the results of the study online June 26, 2019 in the peer-reviewed journal, Public Health Nutrition. They say the study is the first to compare pesticide levels in milk by production method. It is also the first study in a decade that has compared antibiotic and hormone levels differentiating conventional from organic products.
Experts caution against over-interpreting the results, partially because of its unorthodox research methods. Also, because the study was not designed for interpretation. Researchers do not know for sure what, if any, impact these food contamination concerns may have on public health.
Unorthodox Methodology but Results No Less Disturbing
FDA-approved studies may not have used the same research method, but have found results just as upsetting. An FDA-run study found 0.02 percent of milk samples tested positive for drug residues. A far cry from the 60 percent of samples The Organic Center’s study reported. The results are unacceptable nonetheless. If dairy farmers’ products continue to test positive at this rate, they could lose their licenses to produce milk.
Another FDA-conducted study tested 1,900 dairy farms for 31 different drugs. Less than one percent tested positive, but those that did tested at unacceptable levels.
Are You Concerned about Food Contamination?
The Organic Center and Emory University say there needs to be more research to see how chronic, low levels of food contamination from antibiotics, pesticides, and hormones can impact public health.
From a legal perspective, food producers that fail to follow FDA regulations are responsible for any harm their products cause. If you are concerned about food contamination, your health, and your legal rights, contact Bad Food Recall. As a consumer, you have certain legal rights. Learn more by calling 1-877-534-5750, or contact us online. Schedule a free consultation with one of our food safety attorneys.