CORNUCOPIA, WI - Cows that graze on fresh pasture produce milk with higher levels of antioxidants and beneficial fatty acids, such as conjugated linoleic acid and omega-3's, as shown by a recently published study from Newcastle University in the UK.
"Grazing dairy cows on grass or grass and clover swards produces milk with a healthier fatty acid profile and higher levels of fat soluble vitamins and antioxidants," notes Gillian Butler, livestock project manager for the Nafferton Ecological Farming Group at Newcastle University, who led the study.
Previous studies have already shown that organic milk has higher levels of favorable nutrients. This study points to the diet of organic cows-fresh grass and clover-as the major reason for these nutritional benefits.
"This study joins a growing body of science indicating strong links between what we feed our farm animals and the nutritional quality of what they feed us. Not only are you what you eat, but you are what what you eat eats too," says Michael Pollan, author of the best sellers The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food.
Consumers who purchase organic foods often do so for various reasons, ranging from a desire to support an ecologically sustainable agricultural system, the humane treatment of livestock, to wanting to reduce their exposure to dangerous pesticide residues. Studies showing that organically produced foods are also of higher nutritional quality offer another reason for consumers to buy organic.
The study is part of the ongoing Cross-European Quality Low Input Food project, which looks into animal health and welfare, milk quality, and working toward minimizing the use of antibiotics in dairy production. "This paper clearly shows that if you manage livestock naturally then it's a win-win situation for both us and them," says Professor Carlo Leifert, the project coordinator.
Butler, the lead author of the study, also noted that cows don't have to be certified organic, but that organic certification can give the assurance that grazing makes a major contribution to their diet. "If more herds made more use of grazing, butter and cream would have a healthier fatty acid profile," she says.
"Organic consumers can be very confident that the vast majority of brand name organic milk comes from cows that were given the opportunity to graze on fresh pasture whenever possible," says Mark Kastel, codirector of The Cornucopia Institute, a farm and food policy research group based in Cornucopia, Wisconsin.
Some large industrial-scale organic dairies, or "factory farms," milking thousands of cows each, however, have come under fire from watchdog groups like The Cornucopia Institute for not adequately pasturing their cows, as the federal organic regulations require.
Aurora Organic Dairy, which provides private-label organic milk for stores such as Wal-Mart and Target, was found by USDA inspectors to be in willful "violation" of numerous organic standards, including the failure to adequately pasture their cows. The Cornucopia Institute also alleges that the milk from some of Dean Foods' farms, which is marketed under the Horizon brand, comes from cows that were not given adequate access to fresh pasture.
"These scofflaw dairies, which are a small minority in the organic community, but supply large retailers, are cheating organic consumers out of the nutritional benefits that they expect and deserve when they purchase organic milk," adds Kastel. Cornucopia has published a report and scorecard ranking of all organic dairy brands on their web site: www.cornucopia.org.
Organic farmers such as Kevin and Lisa Engelbert from Nichols, NY are among the hundreds of family farmers who supply organic milk from pastured cows. "We're glad to know that there is now a growing body of scientific evidence to support what we've always believed, which is that allowing our cows to eat their natural diet and exhibit their natural behavior on pasture has real benefits for consumers as well," says Lisa Engelbert.
The conclusions reached in the Newcastle University's organic dairy study parallel the findings of a broad analysis of recent studies examining the comparative nutritional properties of organic and conventional fruits and vegetables.
A recent report from The Organic Center, State of Science Review: Nutritional Superiority of Organic Foods, determined that organic plant-based foods in general have higher nutrient values. The report examined the findings of nearly 100 studies looking at nutritional differences between organic and conventional fruits and vegetables in reaching its conclusion that, on average, "organic plant-based foods are more nutritious."
"Based on a growing body of scientific literature it isn't surprising that the milk and meat from cattle who enjoy a 100% organic, pasture-based diet has the potential to enhance human health, Kastel stated."
Contact: Mark Kastel, 608-625-2042