Dairy farmer Julaine Treur buys 30 pounds of butter every time she goes to Costco. For her family of seven, it lasts about a month and a half before she’s out to buy more.
This winter, her butter was harder than it was in the summer — nothing out of the ordinary for a climate like Agassiz’s. But when food columnist Julie Van Rosendaal shared that she was finding butter firmer than usual, Treur took notice.
Something is up with our butter supply, and I’m going to get to the bottom of it. Have you noticed it’s no longer soft at room temperature? Watery? Rubbery? pic.twitter.com/AblDzGiRQY
— Julie Van Rosendaal (@dinnerwithjulie) February 5, 2021
“That piqued my interest as a dairy farmer of course,” Treur said.
“I can’t say that (the butter has) been different than other years,” she added. “But from what I’ve heard, a lot of people have thought otherwise. So it’s definitely something that should be looked into.”
Van Rosendaal wasn’t the only one to notice butter was seeming more difficult to spread. Nova Scotia professor Sylvain Charlebois, in Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analysis Lab, also heard people complaining about hard butter.
“Frankly, I wasn’t convinced,” Charlebois said.
“That’s when alarm bells rang,” Charlebois said.
The October notice was directed at B.C. dairy farmers, telling them that some of the milk going out to processors wasn’t foaming properly — a big concern for shops selling drinks like lattes or cappuccinos. No foam, no sales.
Non-foaming milk is caused by a breakdown of the fat molecules in milk. Once they break down, the fat molecules turn into Free Fatty Acids, or FFAs.
There are many reasons why milk might have a high number of FFAs: cows that are milked too often can have higher levels of the acids, for example, or milk that has been too warm during storage.
Different types of feed can impact the FFAs, as can agitating the milk during milking or cooling.
Farmers were asked to keep an eye on their FFA levels. Charlebois read the report.
That was his “aha” moment.
He started calling different people in the dairy industry, mostly processors, to see what they were noticing in their products. He asked what they were finding in farm audits and other reports.
“There were lots of causes that were presented and discussed,” he said about the increase in FFAs.
“But the one that came up a lot is this whole issue of palmitic acids.”
Palmitic acids are a type of saturated Free Fatty Acid that is found naturally in milk, but also in things like palm oil. And palm oil, or rather the flaky supplement made from it, is often fed to Canadian dairy cows as part of their rations.
These supplements are a simple way to increase the fat content in milk and give the cows a boost of energy-rich food. But some of that increase in fat content is in saturated fats, which means that the butter made from it can be harder to melt.
“That’s why it was easy to connect the dots,” Charlebois said.
On Feb. 18, the agricultural news organization The Western Producer published an article with Charlebois’s findings and interviews with major dairy organizations: the Dairy Farmers of Canada and Lactanet, the dairy industry centre of excellence. Those spokespeople said their data didn’t find an increase in the proportion of palmitic acid in Canadian milk.
Dozens of stories in publications from the CBC to the BBC and even the New York Times and NPR came out looking at the possible connection between palm oil and the dairy industry.
On social media, the conversation moved away from whether butter actually was harder and moved into concerns around whether dairy farmers should be feeding their cows palm fats at all.
— Gerald Butts (@gmbutts) February 25, 2021
#buttergate nonsense hurts my brain. Feeding dairy cattle byproducts of other parts of food production has been happening for millenia. Your butter has not gotten harder over the past six months because of palm oil byproduct which have been fed to dairy cattle for years. pic.twitter.com/pHPeVaFctZ
— Jamie Jonker (@jsjonker) February 25, 2021
Back in Agassiz, Farmhouse Natural Cheeses was seeing a local interest in #buttergate.
“We’ve had a lot of inquiries, especially in this past week about our butter, people just verifying that we don’t use the palm oil,” Dana Dinn, wholesale manager at Farmhouse, said.
Dinn has worked at Farmhouse Natural Cheeses for 10 years, and had never heard of the practice of feeding palm fats to cows with their feed. Farmhouse has their own herd, which they milk for their cheeses and butter, and those cows are fed solely on pasture grass in the summer, and a mixture of hay and grain in the winter.
“It’s all new to me, but I’m not surprised,” Dinn said.
“People are definitely becoming more aware of what they are putting into their bodies, and just all the environmental factors.”
Right now, there is no conclusive evidence that the use of palm fats have made butter harder — and there’s not a lot of evidence that butter is harder than it used to be, other than anecdotal reports.
But in response to consumer concerns, the Dairy Farmers of Canada announced on Feb. 19 that it will launch a working group to look into the science surrounding palm fats, palmitic acid and the dairy industry. They have also asked dairy farmers to temporarily look for alternatives to palm-based supplements.
For Charlebois, the working group is a chance for the dairy industry to move towards more transparency for consumers.
“I think the reason why we went through buttergate is the shock of learning that palmitic acids were being used in dairy,” Charlebois said. “I don’t think Canadians were ready for that.
“The product characteristics at retail didn’t matter any more, it was more about what was going on at farms.”
Check out the Agassiz Harrison Observer next week to read the next part of this series, where we hear from Agassiz farmers about their use of palm fats, and why butterfat is what makes the dairy world go round.