Hard butter issues raise questions

The dairy industry denies anything untoward, but one food industry expert is convinced there is a problem. | Getty Images

Something’s gone wrong with butter in Canada, according to anecdotal reports.

Instead of becoming soft and spreadable at room temperature, it remains hard.

“This is a national phenomenon,” said Sylvain Charlebois, the Dalhousie University professor and expert in Canada’s food industry.

“It’s happening everywhere. It appears to be a widespread problem.”

Indeed, anecdotal reports are popping up from across the country about unusually firm blocks of butter that don’t act the way some consumers expect.

Yet other consumers note no such phenomenon, and there is little hard evidence that something is awry.

“There has been no recent data to show that the consistency of butter has changed, and we are not aware of any significant changes in dairy production or processing,” says a statement released by Dairy Farmers of Canada Feb. 11.

“Our sector is working with experts to further assess these reports.”

Charlebois said he is convinced it’s a significant, widespread problem, although at this point “I can’t prove it. I can’t prove it’s actually happening” because all he has are multiple accounts of the same thing.

However, after he began asking questions in October, processor contacts acknowledged the problem to him, he said.

“That’s when the cat came out (of the bag.) I was told that something was wrong,” said Charlebois.

“They started to realize that something was not right.”

A multitude of factors can affect milk fat quality, from feed composition to milking technology to milk storage practices.

In fact, British Columbia has been dealing with a different dairy quality problem in the past year, warning producers about a “non-foaming milk” issue that has been cropping up and “has escalated rather significantly since late August,” according to a B.C. Milk Marketing Board notice to producers.

“Non-foaming milk is a detrimental quality problem to processors and coffee shops.”

That specific problem is connected to an increase in “lipase enzyme activity,” which erodes the shelf life of milk. The board warned dairy farmers to take the problem seriously.

“Producers must be aware and resolve their non-foaming issues immediately or risk quality deterioration and milk rejections.”

Charlebois wonders if the pressure exerted on the industry by booming demand during the pandemic for dairy fats has trickled down to anxious producers having trouble keeping up with their quota requirements.

Are those farmers finding feed additives that boost per cow production, but have this particular impact on hardness?

Jacques Lefebvre, chief executive officer of DFC, said farmers wouldn’t undermine food quality parameters.

“Dairy farmers are uncompromising when it comes to quality and follow some of the most stringent standards in the world to uphold that commitment,” said Lefebvre.

Charlebois said the processors and farm groups know the problem needs to be fixed, but don’t want to be too public about it. One company he knows of is developing a direct test that will reveal the existence of non-dairy palmitic acid in milk so that specific farms with a problem can be isolated.

“That’s how you would discipline dairy farmers who are actually (applying additives that affect fat production quality),” said Charlebois.

Daniel Lefebvre, chief operations officer at Lactanet, the dairy industry centre of excellence, said there is no clear evidence current problems are other than from an ordinary range of impacts.

“Our data from routine analyses of the fatty acid profile in milk do not indicate any increase in the proportion of palmitic acid in the past year beyond what would normally be expected.”

The problem is already putting off some consumers about milk products and chatter is building on social media about the perceived problem.

Charlebois said the dairy industry needs to wrestle down this problem or the industry’s hard- and expensively won high reputation among consumers could be jeopardized. That’s especially true if the root cause is farmers including additives in feed.

“Doing what they’re doing compromises the image,” said Charlebois.

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