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Sylvain CharleboisFor months, thousands of Canadians have taken to social media saying that they’ve noticed that butter sold in Canada is harder and doesn’t get softer at room temperature.

Not all butter is harder but most is. Some people blame winter and the colder weather.

The truth is more troubling than that. Disturbing reports now point at 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. Palm oil is given to cows. Sources suggest this has been going on for more than a decade, but the problem has become more apparent since August, when butter demand went up suddenly, forcing the industry to produce more dairy fat.

Palm oil given to dairy cows increases the saturated fat in milk compared to unsaturated fat, raising the melting point of butter. This explains why butter made from cows fed with palm oil remains difficult to spread at room temperature. This is the most plausible reason why some Canadian butter remains harder at room temperature.

Due to our supply management regime, farmers are under tremendous pressure to meet their quotas so they get paid.

The use of palm oil on supply-managed farms is the most probable cause because many specialty products, like organic butter and butter made from grass-fed cows, don’t appear to have been affected at all.

Palm oil has been used in dairy for at least a decade without consumers knowing. But since last summer, the practice has suddenly expanded to hundreds, if not thousands, of farms.

Demand for butter was up 12.4 percent in Canada in 2020. Having more Canadians at home cooking up a storm has added stress on dairy production and, more specifically, on the production of butter fat.

Hard butter is now more noticeable because so many farms are participating in the practice. It’s believed that 30 to 35 percent of Canadian dairy farmers are doing this to meet their lucrative production quotas. But nobody knows for sure, not even the Dairy Farmers of Canada or the Canadian Dairy Commission. In fact, the Dairy Farmers of Canada is still turning a blind eye, even though suppliers, farmers and processors have now come forward admitting the problem.

Canadians may wonder why dairy farmers would ever use palm oil to increase fat production. Even though palmitic acid comes at a cost, it’s less expensive than adding cows to herds, which would substantially increase the cost of production. There’s nothing illegal about giving palm oil to dairy cows and nothing prevents farmers from doing this.

However, the impact on the end product at retail is incredibly noticeable to a growing number of Canadians.

And little research has been conducted on how giving palmitic acids 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.

So given that dairy farmers’ Blue Cow is constantly reminding us that dairy products in Canada are among the best in the world, feeding cows palm oil is ethically questionable.

Complaints have been filed with processors and those then get filed with the dairy boards. The number of complaints is making the situation tricky, yet dairy boards have been unbelievably quiet on the issue.

This subject is obviously taboo in the industry, although many dairy farmers with a high sense of integrity are upset and want the practice to end immediately. Nobody in the industry wants to openly address the issue, at least not with the media.

Some boards like the British Columbia Milk Marketing Board released a statement in October about “non-foaming milk” and “free fatty acid.” It’s a subtle way of recognizing the issue. The statement is available for anyone to read but its highly technical nature may not have drawn much attention beyond the farming community.

Other boards have done the same, although much more discretely with internal memos.

We also know now that dairy processing executives have openly acknowledged the problem at industry meetings with hundreds of farmers in the room.

Palm oil can be detected in dairy fat but it requires time and effort. Some processers are apparently trying to develop technology to more easily detect palmitic acids in products they receive. Valacta in Quebec is apparently one of them and the technology could be ready in months.

Sources suggest dairy boards want to use the technology to discipline farmers, allowing manufacturers to reject sub-par butter fat in the interests of the industry and the public.

The industry is quite concerned about its angelic image and doesn’t want this story out in the open – but it is now.

Most dairy farmers want the practice to stop as soon as possible. Using palm oil on dairy farms compromises the quality of products Canadians love. It also breaches the moral contract the industry has with Canadians. Unlike other countries, milk is essentially a public good in Canada. Dairy farmers have exclusive government-sanctioned quotas that make it a privilege for the few to produce milk. And Canadian taxpayers have given $1.75 billion to the industry to assure continued access to wholesome dairy products.

The Dairy Farmers of Canada board only has itself to blame. Despite its dismal track record when it comes to transparency, it should have asked the federal government to ban these products from the market, or at least openly condemned the practice.

A step in the right direction would be to see supply-managed dairy farmers include Canadian-grown oils in their feed additives over imported palm oil. Instead, they’ve tried to protect their imagine at all cost. It’s so disappointing.

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

Buttergate is not what the industry needs, nor what Canadians deserve. Let’s hope the dairy industry can clean itself up before its moral contract with Canadians is permanently damaged.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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