What’s the real difference between organic and regular milk?

News this week that 11 B.C. dairy farms were fined for antibiotics detected in their milk might have shoppers wondering if they should be reaching for organic products next time they hit the dairy aisle.

But many might not realize organic cows can still be treated with antibiotics.

And, in fact, neither organic nor regular dairy products are allowed to have any trace of antibiotics. 

So we decided to take a closer look to find out what consumers are really getting when they pay a premium for organic dairy products.

We spoke to three experts from inside the dairy industry to learn how the system works.

Does regular milk have antibiotics in it?

B.C. has some of the highest standards for milk production in the world, with zero tolerance for antibiotics in milk, according to Crites.

But if an animal is ill and needs antibiotics, then it’s treated with antibiotics, says Hargreaves.

“That is basic animal welfare,” he said.

The animal is removed from production during treatment, and kept out for three or four additional days, depending on the product used, in order to ensure the antibiotics have cleared its system.

“There may be a little bit of variability between cows, but we can be assured that when that withdrawal time is complete, that residue is out of their system completely,” said Wiens.

Who is testing to ensure this?

Hargreaves says the industry uses several levels of testing to keep antibiotics out of all milk and dairy products sold in Canada.

Once the withdrawal period ends, the farmer tests the animal’s milk before putting the cow back in production.

All the farm’s milk is then tested again by the tanker truck driver picking it up for delivery.

If it passes, the processor accepting delivery of the milk tests it one more time before it enters the facility.

If antibiotics are detected at any stage, the entire batch of milk is discarded and previous samples are used to identify the source. 

Any farm that supplies contaminated milk to a processor is fined and liable for the entire cost of dumping and testing the milk, which can be thousands of dollars.

In addition, the whole farm is cut from the supply chain until the problem is solved, costing the farm even more in lost production.

“It is absolute devastation and a huge failure on the part of the farmer,” says Wiens. “It is taken very personally by the farmers … so certainly the focus on farms is to make sure these things don’t happen.”

Finally, the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture performs random tests for antibiotics in milk, and applies the same penalties for violations, notes Hargreaves.

Cows 20150811

Organic or regular cows? It’s hard to tell the difference unless you know what they are fed. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Are antibiotics used when animals are not sick?

Famers are not allowed to use antibiotics in regular feedings to try to boost health or production, Wiens says.

“No, that it is not available. We don’t do general treatments for the entire herd,” said Wiens. “When we use antibiotics, they are specifically used on animals that are sick.”

A sick animal doesn’t have to be examined by a vet before antibiotics are administered. Instead, the farmer makes the diagnosis, determines the treatment and makes a permanent record of the treatment.

The record-keeping is a regulated part of Canada’s food safety system, and is checked by the vet during regular visits to inspect the whole herd.

Are hormones used to produce Canadian milk?

Health Canada doesn’t permit the use of hormones to increase growth or production of milk, according to Wiens

“We don’t use production hormones that they have in some countries,” he says, referring to the use of bovine growth hormone to boost milk production in the U.S.

But there are certain approved hormones for synchronizing the heat cycles of cows, he notes. 

“That would be a very specific thing. That is on an individual basis under the direction of a vet,” he said.

And during treatment, he says, that cow would be approved for regular but not organic milk production.

So what is organic milk then?

An organic milk cow that falls sick can be treated with antibiotics, too, Wiens said, but is typically kept out of production longer after treatment — up to two weeks.

“It is not based on the science of it, but is more of a philosophical perspective,” he said.

And if the animal is treated with antibiotics more than once in a year, it is permanently removed from the production of organic milk, said Wiens.

So the main difference is that organic milk comes from cows that are fed with organically grown feed, according to Wiens.

According to the B.C. SPCA, in addition to the organic feed rules, there are animal welfare requirements for organic dairy cows including access to more outside grazing and prohibitions on using electric prods on the animals. 

Testing has found no nutritional difference between regular and organic milk in Canada, the experts say.

That means it’s up to consumers to decide if the premium price is worth it.

How much have farms been fined?

As in every province, B.C.’s dairy industry is governed by a mixture of provincial and federal regulations and boards.

Eleven B.C. dairy farms were fined a total of $65,000 after antibiotics were detected in their milk between Aug. 2015 and July 2016.

According to Crites, the total fines for previous years were:

  • 2015: $67,393
  • 2014: $83,547
  • 2013: $132,580

The B.C. Milk Marketing Board does not reveal the names of the farms fined.

Follow CBC journalist Mike Laanela on Twitter at @mlaanela