In the dairy industry, "organic" and "natural" products have become increasingly important to some consumers during the past two decades.

Bob Roberts

In the dairy industry, "organic" and "natural" products have become increasingly important to some consumers during the past two decades. For many consumers, purchasing organic milk products is a means of avoiding rBST, which elicits very strong reactions.

Organic farming is intended to protect delicate ecosystems, and the formulating and manufacturing of organic products requires particular considerations.

What Are "Organic" and "Natural?"

To a chemist, the term organic is generally understood to mean "relating or belonging to the class of chemical compounds having a carbon basis." By this definition, all milk and dairy foods are "organic." However, in the context of agriculture and food production, "organic" is generally understood to mean "foodstuffs raised without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, hormones or antibiotics." Another definition is that of "simple, healthful and close to nature." Legally, an Organic Food is produced and processed under the provisions of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 as amended (7CFR205). The term "natural" generally means "present in or produced by nature." With respect to processed food, natural usually means produced without artificial colors, preservatives and dyes. Based on this definition, all milk produced in the US is natural.

Since the primary ingredient in cultured dairy foods is milk, it is important to understand what it means to call milk organic. Organic milk must be from animals that have been under continuous organic management for at least one year before the production of the milk that is to be sold, labeled or represented as organic. Use of animal drugs, including hormones, to promote growth is not permitted. These rules, as well as additional restrictions and guidelines for organic milk can be found in 7CFR205. There are currently no regulatory requirements or definitions for natural milk.

In 2003, there were 74,435 certified organic cows in the United States and they represented about 3% of all milk produced. Recent press reports indicate that demand pressure on the organic milk supply is increasing.

Organic Product Labeling

The USDA's National Organic Program provides three levels of labeling for products. A product made completely with certified organic ingredients can be labeled "100% Organic," while a product made with 95% or more certified organic ingredients can be labeled as "organic" and a product made with 70-95% organic ingredients can be labeled "made with organic ingredients." Any product manufactured with less then 70% organic ingredients cannot contain the word organic on the ingredient panel.

Many dairy cultures are grown by the culture supplier in milk or milk-derivative media before concentration and preservation. Since dairy cultures are found on the National List of Allowed Substances in Organic products, they can be used in products labeled "organic." Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or their products (for example, recombinant chymosin) are not allowed in organic foods.

Processing Organic and Non-Organic on the Same Line

A manufacturer must have a documented plan to prevent commingling of organic and non-organic products. The processor must assure that organic products do not come into contact with prohibited substances (those not on the National List). As a practical matter, this often means typical "no-rinse" sanitizers approved for use in non-organic food must be rinsed off (either with hot- or previously-pasteurized water). One exception to this rinsing is chlorine compounds, provided the residual level does not exceed the disinfectant limit found in the Safe Drinking Water Act. Note that the processing system for organic products must be certified by an approved certifying agency on an annual basis or when changes are made to the manufacturing process.