Confused by labels on dairy products — you’re not alone


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another in a series of columns to run weekly highlighting the area’s agricultural community.

The year is 1950 and an average American family sits down at their dinner table. They have a full spread, including vegetables grown in their garden and a pitcher of unpasteurized milk that they pulled from their bulk tank at the end of milking that same evening. They know the food that is displayed on their table is wholesome and will provide the nourishment they need as they prepared and grew it themselves.

Flash forward 70 years. The average American family now eats dinner separately or on the go. The food comes prepackaged for convenience from the grocery store. Instead of knowing exactly how the food was grown and prepared, the family has to decipher complicated labels — as part of a larger marketing scheme. They hope these products are the safest to consume, but often times they leave the store wondering if the food they are bringing home to their families is the best option.

The average American is now at least three generations removed from agriculture, leaving less than 2% of the world’s population to produce the food that will be consumed by the rest.

Due to the ever growing gap between people and where their food comes from, there has been a significant rise in unease for the average American consumer. This unease has primarily risen due to labeling.

Because people are no longer witnessing first-hand how their food is produced, they are left to their own devices such as reading labels on products and resorting to Google to understand what those labels mean.

As an American dairy farmer, this is the source of one of my biggest frustrations. The marketing world has pitted a once united industry against themselves.

By applying these labels, we have lost the trust of consumers. And it’s easy to understand why. When I walk in a grocery and head to the dairy aisle I am presented with a hundred different options. I have the choice between “grass-fed, organic, non-gmo, conventional” and on and on and on. Because I grew up on a dairy farm, I MOSTLY understand what all of these options mean.

As an average American three generations removed from the source, I would likely have no idea. As a farmer one thing I do know is that these labels do not mean that one is more safe to consume over another.

Many people believe that these labels mean that some of the milk contains antibiotics or that some milk was produced more humanely than others. Neither of which are true.

Any milk that is found in a grocery store is antibiotic free, no matter what label is attached to it.

All milk that leaves any dairy farm in the U.S. is screened numerous times for antibiotics before is ever comes close to reaching the consumer.

I am a conventional dairy farmer. This means that on my dairy farm, we choose to treat our animals with antibiotics when there is reason to do so — such as when they have an infection or an illness that is curable through the use of antibiotics.

The antibiotics that we use are always prescribed by a veterinarian and only given when needed. The antibiotics that are used on farms also come with a “with-hold” period. This is the period of time following the administration of the antibiotic where farmers must withhold the animal from production whether that is beef, pork, milk, or any other product that is being produced on the farm.

On our farm, the animal is separated from the herd, allowing her adequate time to heal and for the antibiotics to run their course until there is no further trace of them within her body. Only then is she allowed to return to the herd.

Everyday when the milk truck pulls into our farm’s driveway to pick up our milk, the first thing that the milk truck driver does is take a milk sample. This milk sample is tested for antibiotics before it reaches the plant. In the case that a trace of antibiotics is found (which very rarely happens), the entire tank of milk is dumped down the drain. As you can imagine, dairy farmers do not get paid for the milk that is dumped down the drain, so it is our number one priority to ensure that this never happens.

When the milk is loaded onto the milk truck, it is then transported to its next location where is may be bottled into fluid milk or processed into other goods such as yogurt, butter, cheese, or ice cream. No matter what the milk’s next destination is, it is tested again before it is unloaded at the plant. As I said, there are multiple screening steps in the milk process that ensures there are absolutely no antibiotics in any milk that will someday reach the consumer, no matter what label is placed on the outside of the container.

Often times these labels are confused with humane animal welfare practices as well.

“Grass-fed cows, organic cows, and conventional cows” are all treated humanely. One label does not signify better treatment over another.

As farmers, we choose this profession primarily due to the fact that we love our cows, and we love our land. Everything about what we do makes it in our best interest to take the best care of both that we can. My family’s dairy farm is conventional. This means is that we believe in the use of antibiotics to treat sick animals. As the herdsmen of our farm, it is my entire job to ensure the proper care and treatment of our cattle. Caring for my cows is my passion in life, there is nothing I love to do more. As a result, we have very healthy and productive cows.

The happier and healthier our cows are, the more productive they are. Proper animal welfare and our success as dairy farmers are directly linked to one another. I always make the analogy to stress in people. The more stressed we become as a person, the less successful we are. Stress directly affects our health and our productivity. Cows are no different. The more comfortable and relaxed we can make our cows, the more productive they are. This is the case for every single dairy farm, no matter what label is place on the outside of the container.

So although there is variation on the wordage of the outside of the container, the contents within are just as wholesome, safe, and nutritious as all the rest. As farmers we have done a disservice to ourselves as an industry by putting the idea in the consumers’ minds that any agricultural product they can purchase on the shelf is of any lesser value than the product sitting next to it.

American farmers work hard day in and day out to produce wholesome and safe products for consumers to enjoy every day.

— For comments or suggestions on the Farming in Central New York series, e-mail John Clifford at


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