Rating Organic Dairy Brands

How does your USDA Certified Organic milk measure up?  Believe it or not, the differences between organic milk brands are considerable.



While we are advocates of real milk (a.k.a. fresh, raw milk), it's not legal in all states to purchase real milk for human consumption. These laws are slowly changing thanks to the efforts of organizations like the Weston A Price Foundation with their Campaign for Real Milk.  But, for many of us, buying certified organic milk from the grocery store is our only option.  So, before you make your next organic milk purchase, you might want to do a little more research because not all organic milk is created equal.

Organic Dairy Industry

One reason people buy organic milk is because they believe it's healthier. They think the animals must be raised in a sustainable and environmentally sound manner. Most consumers mistakenly believe that all producers of certified organic milk employ humane animal husbandry practices. The sad truth is that many organic dairy brands do not follow any of these principles.  

The organics market-place is a $15 billion plus business and the organic dairy industry plays a huge part in this growth.  Have you heard the term "gateway drug" before?  Gateway drugs are "entry level" drugs like alcohol and marijuana which represent most people's first foray into casual drug use.  According to the gateway drug theory, use of these drugs predisposes the user to experimenting with more hardcore drugs. Along the same lines, organic dairy is a “gateway food." Organic dairy is usually most consumers' first step into purchasing more certified organic foods. 

Since certified organic products command a premium price, the lure of the almighty dollar often drives questionable behavior. Organic standards have been defined loosely enough to allow for wide differences in farming practices. Most consumers are not equipped with all the facts and falsely assume that all certified organic products follow the same guidelines. Some agribusiness giants' success depend on consumers not knowing the differences between their questionable certified organic products versus those produced with more ethics and integrity. Thankfully, the Cornucopia Institute maintains an Organic Dairy Ratings Scorecard which rates the various organic dairy brands on a number of different criteria.

The Cornucopia Institute's mission is to fight for economic justice for the family-scale farming community. Through research, advocacy and economic development, they help empower farmers both politically and through marketplace initiatives.  Their report rates America's organic dairy brands based on how well they meet key criteria regarding ethical organic management practices.  By using the Cornucopia Institute's Web-based rating tool, consumers can identify the brands and products found in their region that rank the highest.  More importantly, they can identify those brands that do NOT.

Dairy Scorecard Highlights

The Organic Dairy Scorecard rates organic dairy brands on a scale from 0 - 5 cows. If you'd like to understand more about their rating scale, click here.

0 Out of 5 Cow Rating

A zero cow rating signifies an ethically deficient dairy brand which produces or purchases factory farm milk and calls it organic. These companies refuse to participate in Cornucopia's study. 

Both Aurora and Horizon fall into these categories. These two companies are the largest "organic" milk marketers in the industry. Aurora, in particular, has been sited by the USDA for "willfully" violating 14 different aspects of the federal organic standards including confining cattle to feed lots and using thousands of illegal conventional animals in their dairies. 

1 Out of 5 Cow Rating

Among those listed, the most widely recognized marketers include Kroger, Publix, Costco, Safeway, and BJ's Wholesale Club.

3 Out Of 5 Cow Rating

According to the report, two “very good” companies in this segment deserve special recognition and encouragement for working to improve their practices. Ben & Jerry’s and HP Hood (Stonyfield) are both working to source more local family-farmed milk while improving their supervision and control over their milk supply. 

4 out of 5 cow rating

Four-cow-rated dairy marketers are generally larger commercial manufacturers or marketers of dairy products. They tend to buy milk from many different farmers or wholesale from a milk supplier who manages the relationship with individual farmers. All the brands in this category are highly respected and source their milk from family-scale farms. The two most well known brands are Organic Valley and Whole Foods Markets (365 Organic).

Who Owns Organic?

If you have never taken the time, you might find it interesting to see which companies have ties to some of the most popular organic brands.  Dr. Phil Howard, an Assistant Professor at Michigan State, has created an organic food business chart, which graphically shows which companies own which organic brands.  Dr. Howard teaches in the University’s Community, Agriculture, Recreation, and Resource Studies program.  Dr. Howard has additional interesting information on the structure of the organic industry on his web site.


Organics started out as a small, independent movement that quickly exploded into a major industry with massive consolidation occurring over the past 15 years.  As the size of the market increases, so do major corporate ownership and involvement of the top 25 food processors.  Even though a product has the USDA Certified Organic label, not all organic food marketers follow the same principles upon which organics were first founded.  You owe it to yourself to read the labels, do the research and continuously stay educated.

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