Christine Bruhn knows a thing or two about consumers. As the director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California-Davis, she says dairy producers, especially conventional dairy producers, had better speak up for their industry — loudly and often.

“We recently held several consumer focus groups for some cheese products, and the views the participants have about dairy farming, especially conventional dairy farming, are appalling,” she says. The general consensus is that everything organic is above reproach, while conventional dairy production features all that is bad about livestock farming.

This perspective offers insight into why organic dairy demand has skyrocketed by about 20 percent annually since the mid-1990s, and is projected to continue on this path. While rising dairy demand is good, the manner in which some organic marketers differentiate their products creates a significant marketing challenge for the industry as a whole.

Since perception is everything when it comes to consumers, all members of the dairy industry must be prepared to speak up for dairy when the opportunity arises. Use the list of questions and answers below to learn how to respond to common questions consumers might ask about organic milk. This information was developed with the help of Bruhn; Linnea Kooistra, dairy producer from Woodstock, Ill.; Shelly Mayer, executive director of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin; Blair Thompson, consumer communications manager for the Washington Dairy Products Commission; Dairy Management, Inc., which manages the national dairy-checkoff program, and the National Dairy Council.

What’s different about organic milk?

There is no difference in nutrition or safety between organically and conventionally produced milk. All milk produced in the U.S. must adhere to the same strict federal standards for quality, purity and sanitation. The biggest difference between organically produced milk and conventionally produced milk is the process or system used.

For example, organic dairy producers can only feed their animals feedstuffs that have been organically produced and certified, and they may not use antibiotics to treat animals that become ill, except in extreme cases. (These animals are then removed from the organic dairy.) Organic producers also must go through a third-party certification to verify all of their processes. 

Conventional producers use industry-accepted best management practices to balance healthy diets for their animals, provide a comfortable place to live and ensure animal health. They also keep herd records to track animal health and productivity.

Both production systems result in quality, healthy and delicious end-products that are virtually indistinguishable. All milk is an excellent source of nutrition for you and your family.

Why are there antibiotics in your products?

Actually, there are no antibiotics in the milk you buy.

If a dairy cow becomes sick, sometimes she will be treated with an antibiotic. It’s really no different than your doctor prescribing an antibiotic for you when you become ill. When antibiotics are used on dairies, special precautions are taken to ensure that the milk from treated cows is kept separate from milk that will leave the farm for processing.

To ensure that none of the treated milk is delivered to processors by mistake, every tanker load of milk is tested for antibiotics before processing. If an antibiotic is detected, the entire tanker load is rejected, and the dairy producer whose milk tests positive faces a stiff fine. Repeat offenders can have their licenses to sell milk permanently revoked.

In addition, milk is tested several times during processing. If antibiotic residues are detected at any stage of production, the whole lot is rejected and destroyed. It never reaches your grocery store.

Why are there hormones in your products?

All milk contains hormones, including organically produced milk. They occur naturally in lactating cows and have always been a part of milk.

Some conventional dairy producers use a supplemental hormone for their cows; it helps them produce more milk. The safety of this product has been affirmed and reaffirmed by leading national and international health and agricultural organizations over the past 15 years. You can compare any bottle of milk, and there is no significant difference in the level of hormones between them.

Despite the demonstrated safety of supplemental hormones, some misinformation still persists. In 1997, one study blamed milk for the earlier onset of puberty in girls. However, that report has been refuted through additional research. Scientists now say the increase in early-onset puberty actually coincides with the rise of obesity in this country.       

Is organic milk better for my family than “regular” milk?

No. They are equally as good for you. Check the nutrition label, and you’ll see that each 8-ounce serving of milk offers the same amount of nine essential nutrients, including calcium, vitamin D and potassium — whether it was produced organically or conventionally. Organic milk production simply offers you another product choice at the grocery store.

Study after study has failed to provide concrete evidence that organic foods are better for you. For instance, research in the United Kingdom found that organic milk contains about 64 percent more Omega-3 fatty acids — the good kind — than conventional milk. However, a recent Danish report concludes that organic foods taste no better and are probably no healthier than conventional foods. The vast majority of U.S. food scientists and the American Dietetic Association agree with this finding.

The important thing is that you consume plenty of milk to ensure a healthy body. This means three or more servings a day for adults and four servings for teens. When used as part of a healthy diet, dairy foods also can reduce the risk of high blood pressure, osteoporosis, kidney stones, urinary tract infections and pre-menstrual syndrome.

Why isn’t every dairy an organic dairy?

If all dairies were organic, U.S. dairy producers would not be able to produce enough milk to meet the needs of U.S. consumers. However, among individual producers, the reason for not adopting organic production methods varies.

Economics are a significant factor in the decision. Organic dairying is a much more expensive production method. Organic dairies may only use grains and forage crops that are organically certified. These goods often cost 30 percent to 50 percent more than conventional feedstuffs.

Furthermore, cows managed in an organic-dairy system generally do not produce as much milk as those managed in a conventional-confinement system. Studies show that organically managed cows produce about 20 percent to 30 percent less milk than their conventional counterparts. The U.S. milk supply is closely tied to market demand. So, if overall milk production were to drop by even 10 percent, there would not be enough milk to supply daily market needs. This would lead to milk shortages and significantly higher prices for all of the milk in your grocery store.

In addition, dairy producers can’t just jump into organic dairying. It is a three-year process during which they must adopt organic rules and pay organic feed prices, while earning conventional milk prices. Of course, many of the organic dairy cooperatives will provide assistance during this changeover, but it is a daunting prospect for many dairy producers.

According to research from the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Dairy Profitability, the cost to become certified and employ the necessary record-keeping is a downside to organic conversion.

At the end of the day, it is important to remember that all dairy producers provide you and your family with healthy, nutritious dairy products.

Resources to learn more

find more facts about your dairy industry at the following places. This is just a partial list of the myriad of resources available.