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Milk: Organic Or Conventional?

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by Cindy Sorensen/founder and CEO, The Grocery Group

Cindy Sorensen

When I find myself in a conversation with a consumer about his or her preference for organic milk vs. conventionally produced milk, I like to inquire about the reason behind their preference. They usually tell me they prefer organic milk because they think it tastes better, is nutritionally better and they philosophically believe in the production practices of organic milk. They also believe the cows are treated better on organic dairy farms.

I welcome the opportunity to engage in these conversations with consumers. But I am also frustrated by the opportunity that exists for conventional milk producers to better inform consumers.

Organic milk producers long ago learned the value of communicating and marketing to consumers about their milk. They have been very successful in converting consumers to their product based on their marketing claims. They claim to promote the nutritional value of a glass of milk; they claim their milk is “antibiotic-free” and they talk about cow comfort.

Organic milk processors don’t say their milk is better than conventionally produced milk. They merely state what is true for all milk, regardless of the production practices used. It is the absence of these claims by conventional processors that leads consumers to believe if the processors aren’t making the claims, then their products must not possess the same qualities. 

So why aren’t conventional milk producers marketing the nutritional benefits of their products in order to compete on a level playing field with the growing organic milk segment?

Organic milk processors use their packaging as prime real estate to state their marketing claims, which is a tactic you won’t see incorporated in much depth on conventionally produced milk. The milk category has become a commodity, and to include that messaging on packaging involves an additional cost. In a low margin, commodity category, there is little room to invest in marketing on-package, in-store or through traditional media. 

As for taste, organic milk does taste differently than conventionally processed milk. Some consumers believe this is due to the organic practices used to grow the feed. Consumers report organic milk has a “burnt caramel” flavor, which they say they like. This flavor difference is most likely due to how the milk is pasteurized.

Organic milk represents a small portion of the overall milk category; therefore, its inventory turns much slower in the grocery store than conventional milk. In order to give organic milk longer shelf life and reduce the amount of out-of-date product on the shelf, organic milk is processed using ultra-high temperature (UHT) processing. The temperatures used heats the milk to 275-plus degrees for 3-5 seconds. Conventional milk is processed at 145 degrees for 30 minutes. This process maintains a flavor close to unpasteurized milk.

Regarding animal care, farmers care for their cows. They love their cows and economically it makes no sense to abuse an animal they have heavily invested in financially. Abused cows produce little or no milk. A recent animal abuse report from a dairy farm is bringing attention to the employee hiring practices of dairy farmers. National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) has developed hiring guidelines for dairy farmers to help hire employees who will provide the same humane care to their cows which they do.

Consumers need to know that more than 95 percent of the milk supply is required to abide by the policies of NMPF’s Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM). This program clearly states the care that must be provided to cows by their owners.  

Stakeholders in the dairy industry—processors, manufacturers, retailers, wholesalers, trade associations and checkoff—need to get the word out on this program so consumers can feel confident about the treatment dairy cows receive on farms. 

Organic or conventional? It’s really a personal decision based on flavor or philosophical farming beliefs. If you are a retailer, you can feel confident explaining to your customers that organic and conventional milk are nutritionally the same. If your shoppers are concerned about animal care, share the FARM program with them. It will be good for business.

Cindy Sorensen is the founder and CEO of The Grocery Group, which focuses on developing leadership in the grocery industry by supporting professionals in their career development. The Group also develops programs to connect grocery industry professionals to colleges and universities to help attract, recruit and retain a talented workforce in a competitive employment market. Reach Sorensen at [email protected]

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