Opinion: Buttergate and the 'hard' truth about Canadian butter

For months now, thousands of Canadians have taken to social media saying that they have noticed that butter is harder and does not get soft at room temperature. Not all Canadian butters are harder, but many of them are. Some people blame winter and the colder weather, but the truth is more troubling than that. Disturbing reports are now pointing at some practices on the farm that may have altered the quality of the butter we buy.

Since last summer, thousands of dairy farmers have been giving more energy supplements to their herd. Sources suggest it has been going on for more than a decade, but the problem has become more apparent since August of last year when butter demand went up suddenly, forcing the dairy industry to produce more dairy fat.

For many, the supplement of choice for cows is Palm oil.

To explain it simply, palm oil given to dairy cows increases the proportion of saturated fat in milk compared to unsaturated fat, thus increasing the melting point of butter. This explains why butter made from cows fed with palm oil remains difficult to spread at room temperature. So, if you wondered why butter is harder at room temperature, this is likely the most plausible reason why some of the butter in Canada seems to stay harder at room temperature. 

The use of palm oil in dairy has been going on for at least a decade without consumers knowing about it, but since last summer, the practice suddenly expanded to hundreds of farms, if not thousands. Having more Canadians at home cooking up a storm has added more stress on dairy production, and more specifically, on the production of butter fat. The result? Demand for butter in 2020 was up 12.4 per cent in Canada. 

There is nothing illegal about giving palm oil to cows, though little research has been done on how giving palmitic acids to given to dairy cows could compromise the health of both animals and humans. What we do know is that palm oil may increase certain heart disease risk factors in some people. The effects of palm oil production on the environment, health and lives of Indigenous people in different parts of the world are well documented and deeply concerning. 

The presence of palm oil in dairy fat can be detected but does require time and effort. Some firms are apparently trying to develop a technology that will allow dairy manufacturers to detect palmitic acids in the product they receive. Valacta in Quebec is apparently one of them, and the technology could be ready in months. Some have suggested that dairy boards want to use this technology to discipline farmers, allowing manufacturers to reject sub-par butter fat.

The dairy industry, for what it’s worth, is quite concerned about its image. It does not want this story to come out in the open, but now it has. Many dairy farmers want the use of palm oil to stop. Not only does it compromise the quality of dairy products many Canadians love, but it also breaches the moral contract between the dairy industry and Canadians. 

Unlike other countries, milk is essentially a public good in Canada. Dairy farmers have exclusive, government-sanctioned quotas, and Canadian taxpayers have given $1.75 billion to the industry to assure continued access to quality dairy products. 

So, what’s the bottom line? Dairy Farmers of Canada and the dairy board only have themselves to blame. Despite its dismal transparency track-record, it should have asked Ottawa to ban these products from the market, or at least openly condemned the practice. Another step in the right direction would be to see supply managed dairy farmers including Canadian grown oils in their feed additives over imported palm oil. However, they chose not to. So disappointing. 

Again, not all butter is harder in Canada, some have maintained the same quality. And no one knows for sure which brands or products have been affected. All we know is that some butter like organic butter, butter made with fat from grass-fed cows have apparently not been affected by this scheme. 

A Buttergate is not what the industry needs, or what Canadians deserve. Let us hope the dairy industry can clean itself up before its moral contract with Canadians is permanently damaged.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is the senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University

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