The “hard butter” story is a weird one

I’ve seldom covered a story that’s drawn more reader feedback than the “hard butter” issue, which has numerous people across the country saying that their butter now stays hard at room temperature, rather than becoming soft and spreadable.

It’s a weird story, because there’s no real data and solid evidence on whether or not Canadian butter really has become hard in general, or recently, or not. It’s not the sort of thing anybody has looked at closely, till now.

Today, the dairy industry and dairy processors are scrambling to try to find out if there’s a problem, after the issue blew up last week following a commentary by Dalhousie University’s Sylvain Charlebois in which he spotlighted the issue. He suggested there might be a link with farmers feeding palm oil supplements to dairy cows in order to boost the milk fat yield.

I did a story on the phenomenon and my email in-basket filled up with people from across the country frustrated by the hardness of their butter, which many find no longer spreadable or mixable without being warmed in the microwave. But how representative of Canadian butter consumers are these readers? There’s no way to tell, because each is an isolated individual and every individual can only offer anecdotal evidence. As they way, the plural of anecdote is not “data.” You can’t extrapolate too much from individual cases.

So is there a general problem? Is it something new? What’s going on? Why are people talking about this now? Those are all questions that hang over this story.

The Dairy Farmers of Canada, which represents dairy farmers, is looking into it but says there is no generally reported problem with butter. The Dairy Processors Association of Canada has asked the DFC to look into the issue of the use of palm oil in dairy products and see if there’s a problem. You can see their statement here. Dairy researchers are pondering the issue. The good news is that nobody seems to feel there’s any health concern with butter due to hardness, whether or not it comes from palm-supplemented cows.

With such little data beyond everybody’s block of butter in their kitchen, it’s hard to say if anybody will be able to come up with a solution to this mystery any time soon.

I know in my own kitchen a few years ago I switched from butter to margarine because I often got blocks that were too hard to spread on bread, which made making sandwiches for my daughters’ lunch kits too challenging to deal with at seven a.m. But that was years ago, not recently.

This mystery is something you might hear about for months and years as it is investigated and resolved. Or it may just fade away, especially if the phenomenon is just a little thing that doesn’t grow into a bigger problem. It’s one of those stories that leave a reporter like me wondering: Is this a big story, or no story at all?

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