Some Canadians are finding butter harder than usual, resulting in an avalanche of social media controversy around #buttergate. (Brett Williams/The Observer)

Some Canadians are finding butter harder than usual, resulting in an avalanche of social media controversy around #buttergate. (Brett Williams/The Observer)

#Buttergate: Concerns around hard butter hit small B.C. towns and beyond

Canadians find their butter was getting harder, blame palm oil in part one of this series

Dairy farmer Julaine Treur buys 30 pounds of butter every time she goes to Costco. For her family of seven, it lasts about a month and a half before she’s out to buy more.

This winter, her butter was harder than it was in the summer — nothing out of the ordinary for a climate like Agassiz’s. But when food columnist Julie Van Rosendaal shared that she was finding butter firmer than usual, Treur took notice.

“That piqued my interest as a dairy farmer of course,” Treur said.

“I can’t say that (the butter has) been different than other years,” she added. “But from what I’ve heard, a lot of people have thought otherwise. So it’s definitely something that should be looked into.”

Van Rosendaal wasn’t the only one to notice butter was seeming more difficult to spread. Nova Scotia professor Sylvain Charlebois, in Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analysis Lab, also heard people complaining about hard butter.

“Frankly, I wasn’t convinced,” Charlebois said.

But more and more people seemed to be noticing that something was different about their butter. Then, in October 2020, the B.C. Milk Marketing Board put out a notice about non-foaming milk.

“That’s when alarm bells rang,” Charlebois said.

The October notice was directed at B.C. dairy farmers, telling them that some of the milk going out to processors wasn’t foaming properly — a big concern for shops selling drinks like lattes or cappuccinos. No foam, no sales.

RELATED: Cost concerns leading more java lovers to home brew over coffee shops: survey

Non-foaming milk is caused by a breakdown of the fat molecules in milk. Once they break down, the fat molecules turn into Free Fatty Acids, or FFAs.

There are many reasons why milk might have a high number of FFAs: cows that are milked too often can have higher levels of the acids, for example, or milk that has been too warm during storage.

Different types of feed can impact the FFAs, as can agitating the milk during milking or cooling.

Farmers were asked to keep an eye on their FFA levels. Charlebois read the report.

That was his “aha” moment.

He started calling different people in the dairy industry, mostly processors, to see what they were noticing in their products. He asked what they were finding in farm audits and other reports.

“There were lots of causes that were presented and discussed,” he said about the increase in FFAs.

“But the one that came up a lot is this whole issue of palmitic acids.”

Palmitic acids are a type of saturated Free Fatty Acid that is found naturally in milk, but also in things like palm oil. And palm oil, or rather the flaky supplement made from it, is often fed to Canadian dairy cows as part of their rations.

These supplements are a simple way to increase the fat content in milk and give the cows a boost of energy-rich food. But some of that increase in fat content is in saturated fats, which means that the butter made from it can be harder to melt.

“That’s why it was easy to connect the dots,” Charlebois said.

On Feb. 18, the agricultural news organization The Western Producer published an article with Charlebois’s findings and interviews with major dairy organizations: the Dairy Farmers of Canada and Lactanet, the dairy industry centre of excellence. Those spokespeople said their data didn’t find an increase in the proportion of palmitic acid in Canadian milk.

But then, on Feb. 20, Van Rosendaal published her story on the connection she found between palm oil and hard butter in The Globe and Mail. And #buttergate really got going.

Dozens of stories in publications from the CBC to the BBC and even the New York Times and NPR came out looking at the possible connection between palm oil and the dairy industry.

On social media, the conversation moved away from whether butter actually was harder and moved into concerns around whether dairy farmers should be feeding their cows palm fats at all.

Back in Agassiz, Farmhouse Natural Cheeses was seeing a local interest in #buttergate.

“We’ve had a lot of inquiries, especially in this past week about our butter, people just verifying that we don’t use the palm oil,” Dana Dinn, wholesale manager at Farmhouse, said.

Dinn has worked at Farmhouse Natural Cheeses for 10 years, and had never heard of the practice of feeding palm fats to cows with their feed. Farmhouse has their own herd, which they milk for their cheeses and butter, and those cows are fed solely on pasture grass in the summer, and a mixture of hay and grain in the winter.

“It’s all new to me, but I’m not surprised,” Dinn said.

“People are definitely becoming more aware of what they are putting into their bodies, and just all the environmental factors.”

Right now, there is no conclusive evidence that the use of palm fats have made butter harder — and there’s not a lot of evidence that butter is harder than it used to be, other than anecdotal reports.

But in response to consumer concerns, the Dairy Farmers of Canada announced on Feb. 19 that it will launch a working group to look into the science surrounding palm fats, palmitic acid and the dairy industry. They have also asked dairy farmers to temporarily look for alternatives to palm-based supplements.

RELATED: Directive based on ‘buttergate’ claims could cost dairy farmers, say experts

For Charlebois, the working group is a chance for the dairy industry to move towards more transparency for consumers.

“I think the reason why we went through buttergate is the shock of learning that palmitic acids were being used in dairy,” Charlebois said. “I don’t think Canadians were ready for that.

“The product characteristics at retail didn’t matter any more, it was more about what was going on at farms.”

Check out the Agassiz Harrison Observer next week to read the next part of this series, where we hear from Agassiz farmers about their use of palm fats, and why butterfat is what makes the dairy world go round.



news@ahobserver.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

AgassizDairy Farmers

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

South Surrey’s Paul Cottrell, who works with the DFO, tows a grey whale out of Semiahmoo Bay Sunday. (Contributed photo)
Dead whale floating near White Rock towed to shore for necropsy

Animal has been dead since at least April 15

Dr. Bonnie Henry gives her daily media briefing regarding Covid-19 for the province of British Columbia in Victoria, B.C, Monday, December 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
BREAKING: Toddler marks youngest British Columbian to die related to COVID-19

Child one of eight people to die from virus this weekend

Vehicles line up for the Greater Vancouver Drive-Thru Food Truck Festival at the Chilliwack Coliseum parking lot on March 27. The touring event comes to Cloverdale this weekend, April 24-25 (Photo: Jenna Hauck/Chilliwack Progress)
Here are the food trucks coming to Cloverdale for a drive-thru festival this weekend

Nine trucks will be parked Saturday, nine Sunday during event at fairgrounds

Pharmacist Barbara Violo arranges all the empty vials of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines that she has provided to customers at the Junction Chemist which is a independent pharmacy during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto, on Monday, April 19, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Parts of Surrey, North Delta to get AstraZeneca vaccines for people ages 40+

A total of seven communities in Surrey and Delta will be targeted

The Braidwood Band performs for the seniors at Zion Park Manor in Surrey, as part of a music program planned by Rick’s Heart Foundation. (submitted photo)
VIDEO: Surrey charity brings distanced concerts to care homes, with prop pink firetruck

Familiar tunes performed for seniors during pandemic-era ‘Heart for Music’ program

Public health restrictions on non-essential travel and vacation bookings are being increased in B.C. (B.C. government)
Out-of-region B.C. vacation bookings, RV ferry reservations to be refused, Horgan says

B.C. extends COVID-19 indoor dining, group fitness ban until May 25

Families of two of three workers killed in a train derailment near Field, B.C., in 2019 have filed lawsuits accusing Canadian Pacific of gross negligence. The derailment sent 99 grain cars and two locomotives off the tracks. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Families of workers killed in Field train derailment allege negligence in lawsuit

Lawsuits allege the workers weren’t provided a safe work environment

(New Westminster Police)
4 youth arrested after 30-person brawl in New Westminster leaves 1 seriously injured

Police are looking for witnesses who saw the incident take place

Sunday’s storm rocked one of the ferries crossing Kootenay Lake. Photo: Dirk Jonker
VIDEO: Storm makes for wild ferry ride across Kootenay Lake

The video was captured by ferry employee Dirk Jonker

Chakalaka Bar & Grill remains open in defiance of orders from Island Health to close. (Cole Schisler photo)
B.C. health authority seeks injunction against restaurant defying COVID-19 orders

Chakalaka Bar and Grill plans to continue serving customers without public health compliance

The Abbotsford Centre has the ability to host AHL level games if the Vancouver Canucks or any other NHL team chose to move its affiliate to the arena. (File photo)
Abbotsford Centre ready for AHL if right opportunity presents itself

Building recently upgraded glass and boards, schedule would allow for AHL tenant

A defeat Sunday in Kamloops tied up the Giants and Blazers for the most wins this season. Each team has notched seven victories in the B.C. division play unfolding this season on ice in Kamloops and Kelowna. (Allen Douglas/Special to Black Press Media)
VIDEO: Giants record fifth shutout of the season

Vancouver G-Men take down Kamloops Blazers on home ice Sunday, 4-0

Carver Ken Sheen had almost finished work on a large cowboy carving commissioned by the City of Williams Lake to replace the original overlooking the Stampede Grounds when fire broke out Friday, April 18 at his property between Williams Lake and Quesnel. (Pine River Carving Facebook photos)
Cow boss statue destined for Williams Lake Stampede Grounds goes up in flames

Carver Ken Sheen lost the statue, all his tools and his shop in the blaze

Most Read