“Buttergate”: Why doesn’t butter soften in Canada? | Agriculture News

Montreal, Canada – Something wrong with the butter?

That’s the question some Canadians have been asking in recent months, as anecdotes first surfaced on social media that butter made in Canada was harder than usual and not softening. as easily as before.

The mystery – dubbed “Buttergate” – gained national and even international attention when cook and author Julie Van Rosendaal detailed her search for answers in The Globe and Mail newspaper in February.

“I realized it was one thing when other people started reporting it. A few tweeted at me last spring when the first issue of [COVID-19] home orders have pushed people into their kitchens to cook: why isn’t butter softer at room temperature? Van Rosendaal wrote.

“I called and texted the bakers and pastry chefs who agreed, most adding, ‘Now that you say it’, and ‘I thought it was just me! “”

So what exactly is going on?

Palm oil supplements

“We do not know. We have no idea, ”said Sylvain Charlebois, director of the agri-food analysis laboratory at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

Several hypotheses have been put forward to explain the change in consistency of Canadian butter, whether the butter was overworked and therefore became harder, or whether the cold winter temperatures had something to do with it.

But one of the potential reasons has received the most attention: the use of palmitic acid, a substance derived from palm oil that increases the level of saturated fat in dairy products, in feed fed to Canadian dairy cows. .

People have shared stories online that Canadian butter is harder than usual and doesn’t soften at room temperature as easily as it once did. [Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/Al Jazeera]

If the proportion of saturated fat in milk increases, so does the melting point of butter, Charlebois recently Explain – and Canadian farmers have been supplementing cows with palmitic acid for years.

Canadians are noticing the change, said Van Rosendaal, due to increased demand for butter during the pandemic; She cited data from Dairy Farmers of Canada, a powerful lobby group representing Canadian dairy farmers, which found that butter purchases jumped 12.4% in 2020.

“While it is perfectly legal for dairy farmers to use palm fat in livestock feed, whether it should be is a controversial one. Many scientists and industry experts even refused to talk about it, or did not want their names used, ”she wrote.

The production of palm oil, which is contained in a wide range of food, cosmetic and other products, has been linked to Deforestation and the destruction of major wildlife habitats. Conservationists have called for a boycott of products containing it, such as Nutella.

In November, the Associated Press news agency also reported women working in palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia faced “brutal treatment” which included “the hidden scourge of sexual abuse, ranging from verbal harassment and threats of rape”.

Procurement management

According to Charlebois, “the idea of ​​using a palm oil by-product in dairy products just didn’t appeal to a lot of people.”

He said part of the reason has to do with the system that oversees the country’s dairy, poultry and egg farms. Canadian farmers in these sectors operate under what is called supply management.

Created decades ago, supply management governs how much can be produced and by whom; fixes the prices of these products, which are generally higher than in other countries, and provides protection against foreign competition.

The basic idea is to help limit fluctuations in supply and demand for key products – ensuring that production matches consumption. Dairy farmers must have a permit, known as a “quota”, to sell their products and these permits are tightly controlled.

More than 10,000 dairy farms are licensed across Canada, according to government data, and the Canadian dairy industry says it contributes about C $ 19.9 billion ($ 15.7 billion) annually to the gross domestic product ( GDP) of the country.

A farmer walks with his cow during a protest against imported dairy products in front of Parliament Hill in Ottawa in 2016 [File: Chris Wattie/Reuters]

But powerful dairy industry lobby groups have come under fire for influencing Canadian politics and operating without much transparency, which is why the use of palmitic acid in cow feed has hit a rock bottom. nerf, said Charlebois.

“Supply management is truly a social contract between Canadians and the dairy industry. We protect them, we compensate them, we pay more for our dairy products than other places in the world – in return, all we ask for is quality, ”he said.

“People use the word cartel all the time,” he added, referring to dairy lobby groups. “I think it’s going too far – but it’s damn close.”

Dairy industry response

“Buttergate” prompted Canada’s leading dairy farming and processing associations to issue statements last month in an attempt to allay concerns.

First, the Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) said on February 11 that there was no data showing that the consistency of the butter had changed, nor were they aware of any significant changes in the butter. production or processing. He said cow diets differ from region to region of the country, which could have “subtle impacts” on taste, texture and melting points.

About a week later, on February 19, the organization said that palm products “including those derived from palm oil” are sometimes added to the rations of dairy cows “to increase the energy density” of their diet. . He also announced his intention to establish a task force of experts and stakeholders to examine the issue and questions raised by Canadian consumers.

A day earlier, the Dairy Processors Association of Canada (DPAC), a group representing the dairy processing sector, encouraged dairy farmers to try to better understand the use of palm oil in dietary supplements. and said she would consult with experts to better address people’s concerns. .

“By speaking to members, DPAC can confirm that the way butter is produced in Canada has not changed,” the group said on Feb. 18, adding that Canadian regulations require butter to be at least 80 percent milk fat.

Subsequently, on February 25, Dairy Farmers of Canada called on dairy farmers to “consider alternatives to palm supplements” while its investigation was underway.

“It is essential that decisions are made on a factual basis and that science guides our sector, hence the creation of an expert working group,” he said.

“Approved ingredient”

The Canadian Dairy Commission, a crown corporation that administers and oversees public policy in the dairy industry, told Al Jazeera in an email that its mandate does not include what goes into feeding livestock.

A spokesperson for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the country’s federal agriculture department, said the government did not have data on the number of Canadian farms using palm oil products, but that “Palm oil is an approved ingredient for animal feed.”

“In Canada, palm oil is used by producers to balance a cow’s rations, to compensate for nutritional deficits in hay or forage, or to achieve a level of fat in milk. There are no animal or human safety concerns with the use of food products derived from the palm tree, including palm oil, in the feed of dairy cattle, ”Cameron Newbigging told Al Jazeera in a report. -mail.

“Canadian consumers expect farmers to make efforts to adopt increasingly sustainable practices and the Government of Canada will support the actions of producer associations to this end.

Dairy cows are seen on a farm in the Canadian province of Quebec in 2018 [File: Christinne Muschi/Reuters]

But Charlebois wondered if a survey of “Buttergate” carried out by the dairy industry itself would provide real answers. He urged the Canadian government to get involved to ensure full transparency in the process.

“The final scenario for me would be to see the Canadian dairy industry using a supplement made in Canada,” Charlebois said, adding that ethical and moral considerations should be included in any investigation of how to solve the Canadian butter problem.

“People don’t necessarily understand supply management and the quota system,” said Charlebois, “but they can certainly understand why seeing butter destroying toast in the morning can be a problem – and palm oil. , people understand that. “

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