Objective: Consumption of cow’s milk, which is associated with diet and health benefits, has decreased in the USA. The simultaneous increase in demand for more costly organic milk suggests consumer concern about exposure to production-related contaminants may be contributing to this decline. We sought to determine if contaminant levels differ by the production method used.

Design: Half-gallon containers of organic and conventional milk (four each) were collected by volunteers in each of nine US regions and shipped on ice for analysis. Pesticide, antibiotic and hormone (bovine growth hormone (bGH), bGH-associated insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1)) residues were measured using liquid or gas chromatography coupled to mass or tandem mass spectrometry. Levels were compared against established federal limits and by production method.

Setting: Laboratory analysis of retail milk samples.

Results: Current-use pesticides (5/15 tested) and antibiotics (5/13 tested) were detected in several conventional (26–60 %; n 35) but not in organic (n 34) samples. Among the conventional samples, residue levels exceeded federal limits for amoxicillin in one sample (3 %) and in multiple samples for sulfamethazine (37 %) and sulfathiazole (26 %). Median bGH and IGF-1 concentrations in conventional milk were 9·8 and 3·5 ng/ml, respectively, twenty and three times that in organic samples (P < 0·0001).

Conclusions: Current-use antibiotics and pesticides were undetectable in organic but prevalent in conventionally produced milk samples, with multiple samples exceeding federal limits. Higher bGH and IGF-1 levels in conventional milk suggest the presence of synthetic growth hormone. Further research is needed to understand the impact of these differences, if any, on consumers.

Jean A Welsh, Hayley Braun, Nicole Brown, Caroline Um, Karen Ehret, Janet Figueroa and Dana Boyd Barr