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Home » From the Commissioner

Testing May Help Verify Organic Foods

New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food (March 6, 2009)

Testing May Help Verify Organic Foods

by Henry Fountain, The New York Times
Published: March 3, 2009

Organic foods command premium prices at the supermarket, and wherever there is extra money to be made there is a possibility of fraud. Most organic producers adhere to certification standards, but there is little if any product monitoring at the retail level. So an unscrupulous producer could substitute a conventional food for an organic one. After all, organic milk doesn’t look any different from ordinary milk, right?
Not to a consumer, perhaps, but to a food scientist there are differences. Now a researcher in Germany has demonstrated the feasibility of laboratory testing to determine whether a carton of organic milk is what it says it is.
As described by Joachim Molkentin of the Federal Research Institute of Nutrition and Food in The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the testing relies on the fact that in Germany at least, organic milk has higher levels of the fatty acid alpha-Linolenic acid and different carbon-isotope ratios than regular milk. These differences are related to feeding: cows that produce organic milk generally spend more time out to pasture (or consume more pasture-derived feeds like grasses and clover), while cows that produce regular milk eat corn.
To take into account seasonal variations in milk quality, Dr. Molkentin tested nearly 300 samples of organic and regular milk sold at retail in Germany over 18 months. The tests, using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, showed that organic milk always had an alpha-Linolenic acid concentration above a certain percentage, while regular milk only rarely did (and in those cases the cows were raised in atypical conditions). Organic milk also always had carbon-isotope ratios below a certain level.
The study points out that milk produced in other countries may test differently, depending on dairy farming regulations and practices.
Nevertheless, the study shows that without too much effort, it may be possible to ensure that consumers who prefer organic milk are getting what they pay for.

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