Canada's Oddly Hard Butter Spurs Investigation, Threats

Buttergate has blown up
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 28, 2021 11:35 AM CST
Canada's Oddly Hard Butter Spurs Investigation, Threats
Hard at room temp?   (Getty Images)

A Canadian cookbook author has helped fuel what is being referred to as "buttergate"—an outcry over an apparent change in Canadian butter that leaves it hard all the time, even when kept at room temperature. On Feb. 5, Julie Van Rosendaal tweeted the following: "Something is up with our butter supply, and I’m going to get to the bottom of it. Have you noticed it’s no longer soft at room temperature? Watery? Rubbery?" The next day she offered this: "I actually think I've figured out what’s going on with our butter supply. Feeling very Nancy Drew this morning. Stay tuned." More:

  • What Van Rosendaal dished up next was a Globe and Mail column that put forth her theory: that a surge in baking during the pandemic triggered an increased demand for butter—a 12% rise—which she posits led to changes in cow feed. The culprit? Palm oil substances, according to Van Rosendaal and others.

  • The BBC explains "adding palm oil-based energy supplements to cow feed is a decades-old practice said to increase the milk output of cows and increase the milk's fat content." The thinking is that farmers are using more of it, and that the resulting butter could have a higher melting point, which could impact its consistency at room temperature.
  • Van Rosendaal wasn't alone in her observations. The Guardian points out Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food distribution and policy, tweeted about the situation in December and has since spoken regularly about it. On Wednesday, he tweeted a press release announcing that Quebec dairy producers are to ban the use of palm oil on farms—along with a Thursday tweet stating he had been receiving threats from dairy farmers.
  • The BBC reports the Dairy Farmers of Canada group on Thursday asked milk producers to temporarily stop using palm supplements while a panel examines the issue.
  • Charlebois offers up two helpful perspectives: on why buttergate reached such a fever pitch and the economics that might be driving things. In terms of the former, he explains that butter costs much more—up to 3x—in Canada than the US, and so Canadians "expect quality" in exchange for paying those elevated prices. "So regardless of what is causing harder butter, people are really wondering what’s going on here. And they’re questioning the lack of transparency from the dairy industry."
  • And then there are the economics: The Guardian explains Canada employs a complex system designed to keep foreign products out and keep domestic prices consistent when it comes to milk, butter, and cheese. As part of this, farmers are paid a set fee each month. So "regardless of the quality of your product, regardless of what goes on your farm, you get the same amount of money," says Charlebois. "How do you actually generate more fat while keeping costs as low as possible? Well, palmitic acids are a very convenient solution."
(Read more butter stories.)

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