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April 12, 2024

3 mins read

Dairy Humanewashing Part 2: Organic Certifications Incentivize Cruelty

Farm Forward’s recent investigation and report describing humanewashing and fraud by what is arguably the nation’s leading certified organic, humane, and “regenerative” dairy, Alexandre Family Farms, suggests serious problems with USDA Organic dairy. Our report was covered in The Atlantic.

While the ideals of organic agriculture are undoubtedly positive, organic certifications of dairy and other animal products have often functioned as marketing tools that mask inhumane practices. Most consumers assume that organic products do not come from factory farms but almost all animal products certified as organic are produced on factory farms where animals suffer at least as much as they do on conventional operations. Disturbingly, there is reason to think that animals raised on organic dairies may in some ways actually suffer more.

Organic standards incentivize suffering

The abuse, neglect, and suffering documented on Alexandre farms isn’t just the result of failures to enforce Organic standards. The troubling reality is that some of the suffering we documented was a direct result of incentives created by the standards. In other words, suffering is a feature of the Organic program, not a bug.

“Organic standards are one of the biggest sources of animal suffering in the US today.” — Rancher whistleblower

One main driver of animal suffering is how the Organic program regulates the use of antibiotics. The USDA Organic program prohibits farmers from using antibiotics to treat illnesses. The intention of this standard is to prevent farmers from overusing antibiotics to compensate for crowded and unsanitary conditions, which are common on industrial farms. Instead, the Organic program requires that farmers use organic approved treatments. Unfortunately, many of the organic approved treatments, things like homeopathic remedies, aren’t effective at treating illnesses and injuries common in industrial dairy operations.  If organic treatments fail, the Organic program technically requires that farmers use any necessary treatment, including antibiotics, but with the caveat that any animal treated with antibiotics can’t be sold as organic.

And therein lies the incentive for suffering. Organic farmers receive a price premium for organic products and if they treat an animal with an antibiotic they lose that premium. In other words, it’s more profitable to allow a sick cow fester with illness and injury than it is to treat her.

It’s clear from our investigation that across the organic dairy industry, withholding antibiotic treatment to retain the price premium for organic milk and meat is commonplace, and that enforcement of the USDA’s provision that cows who require antibiotics should be treated with them is virtually nonexistent.


While our report notes how the organic dairy industry might be reformed, we are not confident that such reforms will meaningfully change the dynamics in the industry that are causing widespread suffering. What seems clear is that the structure of the modern dairy industry, including animals raised on organic farms, causes routine suffering that the certifications seem unable, or unwilling, to resolve. Given that reality, conscientious consumers should avoid cow dairy altogether.