‘Buttergate’: Why isn’t butter softening in Canada?

Canadians say blocks of butter are not easily softening at room temperature. But the reason isn’t clear-cut.

The controversy over Canada's butter, dubbed 'Buttergate', has garnered international attention in recent weeks [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

Montreal, Canada – Is something wrong with the butter?

That is the question some Canadians have been asking over the past few months, as anecdotes first surfaced on social media about Canadian-made butter being harder than usual and not softening as easily as it once did.

The mystery – dubbed “Buttergate” – garnered national and even international attention when cook and author Julie Van Rosendaal detailed her search for answers in The Globe and Mail newspaper in February.

“I realized this was a thing when other people started pointing it out. A few tweeted me last spring, when the first issue of [COVID-19] stay-at-home orders drove people into their kitchens to bake: Why is butter not soft at room temperature any more?” Van Rosendaal wrote.

“I called and texted bakers and pastry chefs who agreed, most adding, ‘Now that you mention it,’ and ‘I thought it was just me!'”

So, what exactly is going on?

Palm oil supplements

“We don’t know. We have no idea,” said Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

Several hypotheses have been put forward to explain the change in Canadian butter’s consistency, from whether the butter was overworked and thus got harder, to whether cold winter temperatures have anything to do with it.

But one potential reason has received the most attention: the use of palmitic acid, a substance derived from palm oil that increases the level of saturated fat in dairy products, in feed given to Canadian dairy cows.

People have shared stories online about Canadian butter being harder than usual and not softening at room temperature as easily as it once did [Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/Al Jazeera]

If the proportion of saturated fat in milk goes up, so too does the melting point of butter, Charlebois recently explained – and Canadian farmers have given cows palmitic acid supplements for years now.

Canadians are noticing the change, Van Rosendaal said, due to a surge in demand for butter during the pandemic; she cited data from Dairy Farmers of Canada, a powerful lobby group representing Canadian dairy farmers, that found butter purchases jumped 12.4 percent in 2020.

“Though it’s perfectly legal for dairy farmers to use palm fat in livestock feed, whether they should be is a contentious issue. Many scientists and industry experts declined to even speak about it, or didn’t want their names used,” she wrote.

The production of palm oil, which is contained in a wide array of food, cosmetic and other products, has been linked to deforestation and the destruction of key wildlife habitats. Environmental advocates have called for the boycott of products containing it, such as Nutella.

In November, The Associated Press news agency also reported women working in palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia faced “brutal treatment” that included “the hidden scourge of sexual abuse, ranging from verbal harassment and threats to rape”.

Supply management

According to Charlebois, “The idea of using a palm oil by-product in dairy just didn’t sit well with a lot of people.”

He said part of the reason why is related to the system that oversees the country’s dairy, poultry and egg farms. Canadian farmers in these sectors operate under what is called supply management.

Set up decades ago, supply management regulates how much can be produced and by whom; sets prices for those products, which are typically higher than in other countries, and provides protection against foreign competition.

The basic idea is to help limit fluctuations in the supply and demand of key products – ensuring production matches consumption. Dairy farmers must have a permit, known as a “quota”, to sell their products and those permits are tightly controlled.

More than 10,000 dairy farms are licensed across Canada, according to government data, and the Canadian dairy industry says it contributes about 19.9 billion Canadian dollars ($15.7bn) to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) annually.

A farmer walks with his cow during a protest against imported dairy products in front of Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in 2016 [File: Chris Wattie/Reuters]

But powerful dairy industry lobby groups have been criticised for exerting influence on Canadian politics and operating without much transparency, which is why the use of palmitic acid in cow feed struck a nerve, said Charlebois.

“Supply management is really a social contract between Canadians and the dairy industry. We protect them, we compensate them, we pay more for our dairy products than other places around the world – in return, all we’re asking is for quality,” he said.

“People use the word cartel all the time,” he added, referring to the dairy lobby groups. “I think it goes too far – but it’s pretty darn close.”

Dairy industry response

“Buttergate” prompted Canada’s top dairy farming and processing associations to release statements last month to try to stem concerns.

First, Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) said on February 11 there was no data to show the consistency of butter had changed, nor was it aware of any significant changes in production or processing. It said cows’ diets differ in regions across the country, which could have “subtle impacts” on taste, texture and melting points.

About a week later, on February 19, the organisation said palm products “including those derived from palm oil” are sometimes added to dairy cows’ rations “to increase the energy density” of their diets. It also announced plans to set up a working group of experts and stakeholders to look into the issue and questions raised by Canadian consumers.

A day earlier, the Dairy Processors Association of Canada (DPAC), a group representing the dairy processing sector, encouraged dairy producers to try to better understand the use of palm oil in feed supplements, and said it would consult experts to better address people’s concerns.

“In speaking to members, DPAC can confirm that the way in which butter is produced in Canada has not changed,” the group said on February 18, adding that Canadian regulations require butter to contain at least 80 percent milk fat.

After that, on February 25, Dairy Farmers of Canada asked dairy farmers “to consider alternatives to palm supplements” while its investigation was under way.

“It is essential that decisions be made on a factual basis and that science guide our sector, hence the creation of a working group of experts,” it said.

‘Approved ingredient’

The Canadian Dairy Commission, a Crown corporation that administers and oversees public policy in the dairy industry, told Al Jazeera in an email that its mandate does not include what goes into cattle feed.

A spokesman for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the country’s federal agriculture department, said the government did not have data on the number of Canadian farms using palm oil products, but that “palm oil is an approved ingredient for livestock feeds”.

“In Canada, palm oil is used by producers to balance a cow’s rations, to offset nutritional shortfalls in the hay or forage, or to achieve a desired butterfat level in the milk. There are no animal or human safety concerns with the use of approved palm-derived feed products, including palm oil, in dairy cattle feed,” Cameron Newbigging told Al Jazeera in an email.

“Canadian consumers expect farmers to make efforts to adopt increasingly sustainable practices and the Government of Canada will support the actions of producer associations to this end.”

Dairy cows are seen on a farm in the Canadian province of Quebec in 2018 [File: Christinne Muschi/Reuters]

But Charlebois questioned whether an inquiry into “Buttergate” led by the dairy industry itself would provide real answers. He urged the Canadian government to get involved to ensure full transparency in the process.

“The end scenario for me would be to see the Canadian dairy sector use a Canadian-made supplement,” said Charlebois, adding that ethical and moral considerations should be included in any investigation into how to solve the problem with Canada’s butter.

“People don’t necessarily understand supply management and the quota system,” Charlebois said, “but they can certainly appreciate why seeing butter destroying toast in the morning can be a problem – and palm oil, people understand that.”

Source: Al Jazeera