Dairy producers launch investigation into hard butter

National association will form working group to help determine if butter has become harder and if palm oil is to blame

Canada’s dairy farmers and the dairy industry are vowing to find out what’s going on with the “hard butter” issue.

Dairy Farmers of Canada is creating a “working group” to look at the question of whether butter has gotten harder in recent years and if palm oil-based feed supplements are part of the cause.

“A diverse range of stakeholders will be invited to participate, with representation from dairy farmers, processors, internal and external experts,” said David Lauer, assistant director of communications at DFC.

“We will seek the views of consumers as part of this exercise.”

For weeks, foodies across the country have been debating whether butter has suddenly seemed to stay hard at room temperature, rather than becoming soft and easy to spread on bread or mix into baking.

There is little solid research on the subject. The hardness of butter in recent years, the specific impact of various feed additives on milk fat composition and characteristics, and producer incorporation of various substances has been little studied in terms of how they may affect butter hardness.

Canada’s dairy processors have been alarmed by the chatter on social media and called on dairy farmer organizations to investigate the matter.

“The Dairy Processors Association of Canada does not have the data necessary to assess the extent to which this type of feed supplement is used on Canadian dairy farms and thus encourages dairy producer organizations to take steps to better understand its use,” says a Feb. 18 statement from DPAC.

“DPAC will work with dairy producer organizations to consult with experts to understand this situation, address consumers’ concerns and explore possible policy options.”

Palm oil extracts are commonly used by dairy farmers to boost the fat content of milk, for which they have quotas and for which there has been booming demand in the last year.

Palmitic acid, which is boosted by these supplements, is a naturally occurring property in all milk fat, and has not been proven to have an adverse effect on human health based on varying proportions of it in the final product.

It also has not been shown to have a big impact on butter composition at the very low rates of less than one percent feed at which it is generally fed by the farmers who use it, according to Daniel Lefebvre of Lactanet, the national dairy research consortium.

“I think people are making shortcuts in probably reading beyond the real effect,” said Lefebvre.

DFC notes that “the increase in the palmitic fatty acid profile of dairy fat linked to this feeding practice is less than three percent.”

The recent controversy over the apparent hardness of butter — observed by some consumers but not others, according to anecdotal evidence shared on social media — grew out of queries by food writer Julie van Rosendaal, raised in a social media post.

The issue was picked up by food industry analyst Sylvain Charlebois of Dalhousie University, who focused upon rumours and anecdotes he was hearing that farmers had embraced palm-based supplements recently, and this was affecting butter consistency.

Charlebois’ past criticisms of the supply management system provoked numerous dairy farmers and industry participants to be skeptical of the claims, with some seeing them as an excuse to knock the system.

Charlebois says he is a supporter of the Canadian dairy industry, but thinks supply management needs to be overhauled to operate more effectively and that it should be more aggressively dealing with the “hard butter” claims.

The Globe and Mail published a large piece by van Rosendaal, the newspaper’s associate food editor, on Feb. 20, in which she detailed contact with dairy researchers and processors that she said validated rumours she had heard about palm-based supplements being broadly used and likely contributing to the hardness factor in room temperature butter.

DFC says its review of the situation should clarify what’s happening and why. The use of palm supplements “is not new and is a safe ingredient, approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.”

“Farmers work with cow nutrition experts who analyze the nutritional value of crops several times a year to adjust the ration fed to meet cows’ needs,” said Lauer.

“Dairy farmers are uncompromising when it comes to quality and follow some of the most stringent standards in the world to uphold that commitment. Canada’s dairy is and remains of high quality.”

Farmers in other countries also use palm products as feed supplements, DFC says, including those in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

Processors say they have changed nothing in butter processing that would provoke hardness, as far as they know.

“DPAC can confirm that there have been no changes to the way in which butter is produced in Canada and the ingredients are the same as they have always been,” said the organization in a Feb. 19 statement.

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