Spread the word — facts not all in yet on butter

Is butter really harder than it used to be? Some think it is.

But what if harder butter is like other versions of the truth? You know, like the ones we learned in the past four years in the United States political scene. Some folks down there have successfully claimed secondary truths are just as good or better than actual truths.

It could be that butter has long been harder than we thought it was, especially in the winter. And maybe, with some suggestions from credible sources, we in the media played our role of covering things-people-are-interested-in and perpetuated a myth: harder butter.

The issue became a social media phenomenon this winter, in part because more people are baking and to do that, they buy more butter. Canadian sales in 2020 jumped about 12 percent over last year. Many people are baking for the first time since their grandmas showed them how to make cookies. That means folks with less experience around butter are comparing it to the butter of their memories.

Could memories of butters gone by be sparking the demand for softer dairy fats? Say, memories developed prior to 2010? Or even 2001?

Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food public policy and director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax, seems to be the source who gave traction to the issue. He is a reliable source of food information in Canada, often quoted in this publication and others.

Charlebois has tied the softer butter demands of the pandemic home-cooking craze to one of his pet projects, the end of supply management for dairy in Canada.

The professor rightfully lays claim to a great deal of credibility. An academic and well-known commentator on all things food, and some agriculture, he has a solid track record of identifying important issues in Canadian food policy.

Charlebois also has a history of being critical of supply management. He suggests an open market would be better for consumers. When it comes to dairy, he has said that farmers should have to compete with the rest of the world’s markets no matter how uneven the playing field.

So, the source must be considered when it comes to any information, including that on “Buttergate.”

Dairy farmers are paid for the amount of butterfat they deliver. Their quotas are set in kilograms. The more efficient they are in production, the fewer animals they have to feed, manage and milk.

Charlebois suggests that Canadian dairy farmers have been increasing the palmitic acids their feed rations to better meet swelling demand. He suggests that has created a newly harder butter.

However, palmitic acid has been available and used in the Canadian dairy feed market since 2001. It is very effective at increasing dairy fat yields when fed at one to two percent of the feed ration, according to the University of Saskatchewan’s most recent work.

Farmers are paid for dairy fat so they use the feed additive to improve yields. And yes, if too much is used, it can result in higher levels of palmitic acid in butter, raising the product’s melting point.

Memories of more spreadable butter might thus stretch back to times when milk production was less efficient and sustainable and didn’t use palmitic acids. What that has to do with Canada’s supply management system would take another version of the truth to identify.

In the meantime, dairy farmers have responded to Buttergate by promising to study the matter, respond if necessary and satisfy consumers’ concerns. It’s the right thing to do.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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