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(Photo: AshokaJegroo/Creative Commons.)

Christine Haughney covers corruption and criminal behavior as part of the Zero Point Zero Production series Food Crimes.

When I started reporting on the dairy industry for Food Crimes, I realized how little I know about milk, the product I buy more often than anything else. I buy it from my farmers’ market. I order it from Fresh Direct. I pick it up at our local supermarket bodega after work, before bedtime and on the way to the gym because we are always running out. Colleagues who also are always buying milk chimed in with their own questions. Where does the milk they buy for their children actually come from? Why are expiration dates so far into the future? Does milk have antibiotics in it?

A simple assignment, which began by walking down my grocery store’s dairy aisle, writing down brand names and calling the 800 numbers on the backs of cartons, proved to be much more challenging than I thought. Getting answers from milk companies, it turns out, was just as difficult as some of the reporting I have done on white-collar criminals. In some cases, despite repeated calls and emails, I never heard back from some of the biggest brands I find in my refrigerator.

The good news is that there is enough regulation in the dairy industry to create some protections for consumers. On a federal level, packaged milk is overseen by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). State governments work with the federal government through a nonprofit called the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments.

The confusing part is figuring out where your milk comes from. Horizon Organic, the milk in the red carton found in many New York City supermarkets, presents itself as part of the early organic movement. But today it’s owned by Denver-based WhiteWave Foods Company, which also owns brands like Silk and Land o’ Lakes. A rep for WhiteWave declined to answer any of my questions.

But based on the input from milk producers, dairy-industry representatives and farmers who did answer my questions, here’s what I learned:

1. How does my milk make it from the cow to my home?

A lot of the milk that we buy at our local supermarket comes from individual farms that belong to cooperatives. When I spent time with Laurie Kyle and her family at their five-acre farm in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, I learned that they milk their 100 cows three times a day and store the milk in a tank. Then Foremost Farms, the cooperative the Kyles belong to, sends a truck every other day to pick up that milk. While much of the Kyles’ milk is turned into cheese or butter, some of it has been sent to Dean Foods, the El Paso, Texas–based food company that packages milk for brands like Tuscan Farms. That milk is shipped to Illinois to be pasteurized and shipped across the nation.

2. Does my milk contain antibiotics or artificial growth hormones?

Milk containing antibiotics is not allowed to be sold because of a combination of legislation and internal testing. According to Chris Galen, a spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation, state regulators make sure that dairy farmers follow the federal Pasteurized Milk Ordinance, which enacted certain requirements that are established by the FDA. These rules ensure that every truckload of milk that arrives at a dairy processor is tested for antibiotics.

Kyle adds that farmers really can’t afford to try to sell milk with antibiotics. She notes that when a cow gets sick with an illness that requires antibiotics, like mastitis, a farmer immediately stops including that cow’s milk in its supply. The cow is not allowed back into the farm’s milk supply until the cow tests clear of all antibiotics. Kyle says that as a member of a cooperative, if her farm’s milk ever supplied milk with antibiotics to the cooperative, the farm would have to pay for all of the other farms’ milk that was tainted by antibiotics in the communal milk tank.

“For a tanker of milk, it would be $10,000,” says Kyle. “We don’t have a lot of room for margins. So we ethically, morally wouldn’t do that.”

Whether your milk contains artificial growth hormones is another story altogether. The FDA considers these hormones to be safe for human consumption, so it’s perfectly legal for companies to sell milk that contains them. However, many milk brands do not use them and make a point of telling you so on the label.

For instance, Dean Foods, which owns milk brands like Tuscan Farms, requires “all farmers we work with to sign an affidavit stating that the milk they produce comes from cows not treated with artificial growth hormones,” according to spokeswoman Reace Smith. She adds that company fields so many questions about artificial growth hormones that the issue has risen to the number-one position on its automated phone system. Just to be clear, Smith says, there are no antibiotics in the company’s milk.

3. Why are some expiration dates two to three months away?

First, milk distributors are quick to clarify that they use “best by” dates. But a milk’s shelf life depends on how long the milk has been refrigerated and the type of pasteurization process it has gone through. Smith says that several factors have to be taken into account when setting shelf life, like state laws, the regional raw milk biochemical makeup and what the plant processing the milk can handle. She noted that pasteurization typically gives milk 14 to 21 days of shelf life. But it all depends on temperature. “If milk is kept at 32 degrees it might be fresh up to 24 days, but if the temperature of the milk rises to 80 degrees then the shelf life of the milk is reduced to approximately six hours.”

The expensive milks found on supermarket shelves with expiration dates months in advance, like Fairlife, go through a special pasteurization process. Anders Porter, a Fairlife spokesman, explains that his cooperative of farms make milk with an extended shelf life. “Ordinary milk is pasteurized at a high temperature for 15 to 20 seconds,” says Porter. “Fairlife milk is pasteurized at an even higher temperature for less time.” That process enables milk to remain on store shelves for two to three months.

4. Do milk brands on store shelves even know where their milk comes from?

Sort of. Take Dean Foods, for instance. The company itself does not own any cows, nor does it know how many cows supply it with milk, according to spokeswoman Smith. It purchases milk from a diverse group of individual farms and cooperatives that pick up milk from an array of suppliers. The milk you buy comes from tanks that collect milk from of all these diverse sources. So it’s hard to trace the exact origin of the stuff in your carton at home.

5. As raw milk grows in popularity, why drink pasteurized milk at all?

The Food and Drug Administration has long held the position that pasteurized milk is safer than raw milk. Many farmers stick by that position as well. Even some raw-milk drinkers, like artisanal cheesemaker Andy Hatch of Vermont’s Uplands Cheese, admit that there are merits to pasteurization that raw milk can’t match. Even though he stands by the raw milk from his own cows, he doesn’t serve it to friends or their children and even boiled the fresh milk he served his children when they were younger. He simply didn’t trust that their immature immune systems could tolerate the bacteria. Now that his kids are older, they drink raw milk because they regularly come into contact with the cows, he says, and people who live on farms often built up an immunity that non-farmers lack.