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What You Drink Impacts Your Diet, Part Five: Milk and the Dairy Industry

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Our last few stops on this beverage expedition have been quite pleasant: from water, the "fountain of wellness," to the goats in Africa, exploring that coffee, in general is good, to the legend of the Emperor in China, who gave us tea and its countless health benefits. Now we take a look at a popular liquid choice, used to drink, in recipes, cereal and array of other ways –– milk. Dairy products also include yogurt, cheese, ice cream, butter, and so on. But does "milk do a body good"?  More importantly, what about the dairy cows? Warning: this  "stop and smell the pasture" detour is rather lengthy and disturbing.

Considering I live on the Central Coast of California where cows graze and relax on ranches side by side with horses, only a quarter a mile away –– and all over our counties –– cows have become one of my favorite animals (my first is the Silverback gorilla) and that is one of the reasons I rarely eat beef. The other basis is that beef is high in saturated fat and there are much leaner types of meat to choose from. 

Ironically, as an animal lover and a fitness expert, I'm torn when it comes to consuming animal sources of protein altogether. Protein –– an important component of every cell in the body, is a "macronutrient" and along with carbohydrates and fats, is needed in relatively large amounts. Consuming protein daily is essential to a balanced diet and it can aid in weight loss. Although you can get enough protein in your diet via plant sources like legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, as well as small traces found in fruits and vegetables, you may end up "over-carbing" and missing out on the plusses that animal sources of protein bring to the table, unless of course you are a well-educated and disciplined vegan.

Despite the fact that poultry, beef, eggs, milk, and seafood were never meant to be consumed in excess, our society has turned something good that was intended for life and nutrition into something horrific –– transforming our food industry into a "gluttony and greed machine," at the expense of our innocent animals. It is a travesty that is obvious to those "brave" enough to confront the reality of the on-gong barbaric and disgusting treatment of our animals in the name of food supply.

Unfortunately, dairy cows are not immune from the cruelty our food industry imposes on our animals. According to VegforLife.org (and tons of other advocacy groups, each carrying their own agenda), dairy cows are…

  • Forced to produce ten times more milk than they would in nature, most dairy cows endure an exhausting existence of continuous breeding and milk production. As a result, dairy cows frequently suffer from painful udder infections, lameness and other ailments.
  • In the name of increased milk production and profit, many dairy cows are injected with Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH), a genetically engineered hormone known to cause birth defects in calves. The drug, which was approved by the FDA, was banned in Europe and Canada.
  • Although they can live for more than 20 years in a healthy environment, dairy cows are sent to slaughter when their milk production declines at four or five years of age.
  • And so on…

As an author of a diet book, I do recommend consuming protein from lean meats, egg whites, and certain seafood. And dairy products have their place in a healthy and fit diet especially yogurt (sugar-free of course). However, I do advise choosing “free-range” and "organic" –– poultry, eggs, beef, and dairy products, because, for the most part, these animals have better odds of being treated humanely and free-range livestock are allowed to roam freely and feed at will.

Sadly, just like most industries, come the liars. Even though the USDA has regulations for those that label themselves “all-natural,” “free-range,” “free-roaming,” or “organic," there is no guarantee that animals were treated any better than animals raised in conventional factory farms. Moreover, most “free-range” animals are still mutilated and forced to endure long trips to slaughterhouses without any food or water. And according to DawnWatch.com, "Organic dairy cows are not pumped with hormones to increase milk production. However the picture of them leading natural lives is a fallacy. And dairy cows from organic farms have the same fate as other diary cows –– they eventually become organic hamburgers." 

On the positive front, and even if you don't "buy into" the claim that organic is better for your health, eating fewer animal products is better for the environment as are organic farms. Furthermore, thanks to animal advocacy groups and watchdogs, it is refreshing to know that there are strides toward making organic dairy a first step to cruelty-free dairy products. Under the United States National Organic Program (NOP), "standards for organic dairy production are designed to promote good health and limit stress for farmed animals." Unlike conventional farms, organic dairy farms have stricter requirements on their livestock (cows and goats), which include feed, health care practices, and living conditions.  

Back in October of 2008, the USDA proposed changes to the standards that govern organic dairy farms –– those seeking the "organic certification" were required to give their cows "access to pasture." According to Kathie Arnold, (NY State organic dairy farmer and President of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA), a NOC member), “[the] draft rule provides specific language needed for enforcement of one of the central tenets of organically produced livestock—that organic livestock spend a considerable part of their lives in their natural pasture habitat and receive a significant portion of their food from fresh, green, growing pasture.”

Over the years, some large dairy companies have chosen to either interpret loosely or "willfully violate tenets of federal organic regulations" altogether. Seemingly, the Obama administration (Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the USDA) has "taken the bull by the horn," including the organic program.  Back in December of 2009, one of the largest organic cattle producers in the U.S., Promiseland Livestock (a multimillion dollar operation out of Nebraska), was "decertified" by the USDA –– suspended from organic commerce for four years for their improprieties.  

This past February, the USDA released stronger organic USDA rules –– "regulations that establish distinct benchmarks requiring the grazing and pasturing of dairy cows and other livestock," which was delayed by the Bush administration and is expected to go into effect around June 16, 2010. According to Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute (one of the industry's most aggressive watchdogs), “The public controversies concerning Aurora Dairy (a $100+ million company based in Colorado, who produces a private-label, store brand milk for Wal-Mart, Costco and large grocery chains), and alleged improprieties by the largest milk processor in the country, Dean Foods (Horizon Organic), put increasing pressure on the USDA to rein-in the scofflaws in this industry.”

Many of us, including the smaller organic dairy farmers, are eager to see that these stricter regulations will put an end to the abuses (some criminal in my opinion) that have flooded the organic market by a handful of mega-dairies –– specifically the treatment of livestock –– and restore fairness and integrity to the organic dairy sector. Cornucopia, who has criticized the Bush administration and his arm of the USDA, has their hope that the Obama administration will be "swift" to enforce and penalize any abuses.

While organic livestock are getting well-deserved attention, regrettably, conventional livestock still remain at the "mercy" of our dreadful food industry and it's quite nauseating –– a topic worthy of outrage and action by all of us. And I haven't even covered the atrocities committed at the slaughterhouses. That said, I am left wondering if our organic dairy cows (and other livestock) have a brighter future?  Only, time will tell. 

So at the end of the pasture, "does dairy do a body good?" Dairy products like yogurt, cottage cheese, and milk (low-fat choices of course) offer some health benefits, however, drinking tons of milk, in my opinion, is overrated –– even when you are looking for calcium, which can be found in non-dairy sources. There are alternatives to dairy, like soy products, but if you are not ready to give up your dairy just yet, there is one thing you can do: choose a “dairy brand” with high standards. The Cornucopia Institute has developed a way to enable consumers to identify the best dairy brands. They offer a report, “Maintaining Integrity of Organic,” and rate 68 different organic dairy brands against a set of criteria central to true organic standards; "Organic Dairy Report/Ratings Arranged by Cow Star Ratings."

Our next stop in our beverage journey will be much lighter; we will tackle one of the most popular liquid choices in America –– the "diet villain" soda, a drink that does its fair share of damage to the health and wellness of our bodies and that of our children.  

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About Christine Lakatos

  • Wal Heinrich

    So true, Christine. I am fortunate enough to live near a 50+ mile long island that boasts of its biodynamic free range eggs and its disease free bees. Dairy farms near me cooperatively produce top quality milk and market it as organic. It costs a little more but I think it is worth it. I consider myself to be very lucky to be able to enjoy wholesome foods where so many people, because of ignorance or lack of choice, have to eat the rubbish that the corporate farms serve up.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/christine-lakatos/ Christine

    Thanks for the comment Wal: wish more people had your intelligence and attitude.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    “There are alternatives to dairy, like soy products…”

    Yes, but lets’ also be truthful about the possible health concerns & overall lack of nutrition from non-fermented & modern processed edible Soy Isolate Proteins.

    Like all legumes, soy beans are deficient in sulfur-containing amino acids methionine and cystine. In addition, modern processing denatures fragile lysine.

    “In the name of increased milk production and profit, many dairy cows are injected with Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH), a genetically engineered hormone known to cause birth defects in calves. The drug, which was approved by the FDA, was banned in Europe and Canada.”

    [The]FDA believes that the Canadian reviewers did not interpret the study results correctly and that there are no new scientific concerns regarding the safety of milk from cows treated with rbGH. The determination that long term studies were not necessary for assessing the safety of rbGH was based on studies which show that: bGH is biologically inactive in humans even if injected, rbGH is orally inactive, and bGH and rbGH are biologically indistinguishable.-Review of the Safety of Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin [updated 2009]

    “eating fewer animal products is better for the environment as are organic farms.”

    In all fairness, NOT breeding would also be kinder. Also, if all people completely switched to a vegetarian diet then wouldn’t that, ultimately, place the burden on a different part of the environment? Seriously, we’re trying to support an estimated 6,884,396,120 global population on one planet! What food source is going to be a complete solution??