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

This garbage bin behind a strip mall in Skaha Lake Road was set alight on Friday night at 11 p.m. The foam from firefighters can be seen on the ground. (Facebook)
Dumpster fire comes too close to Penticton seniors’ complex

One resident worries Penticton might have a fire bug

The Town of Oliver is lobbying for funds to fix part of an irrigation system damaged by a rock slide last year that would have a huge impact on farmers and the entire region. File photo
Province to finish funding for Oliver irrigation system repairs

The irrigation system was damaged after a rockslide in 2016

Theo's now delivering to Summerland
Penticton Greek restaurant now delivering to Summerland

Theo’s restaurant is the first to deliver food to Summerland in their ‘Squidmobile’

The Vees are on their fourth straight win as they head into game five of Pod Season on Sunday. (Cheri Morgan Photography)
Penticton Vees keep winning streak alive with 5-3 win

The Vees are now 4-0 to start the BCHL pod season

Penticton Christian School. (Facebook)
COVID-19 exposure at Penticton independent school

The exposures are the latest in a quickly growing list in the Interior

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod, seen here on April 9, 2021 with four-year-old sister Elena and mom Vanessa, was born with limb differences. The family, including husband/dad Sean McLeod, is looking for a family puppy that also has a limb difference. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. family looking for puppy with limb difference, just like 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy McLeod born as bilateral amputee, now her family wants to find ‘companion’ puppy for her

This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus.[CDC]
More COVID-19 exposures reported at schools in Kelowna

Interior Health added additional schools and dates to their list of exposures

A vehicle that was driven through the wall of a parkade at Uptown Shopping Centre and into the nearby Walmart on April 9 was removed through another hole in the wall later that night. (Photo via Saanich Police Department and Ayush Kakkar)
Vehicle launched into B.C. Walmart removed following rescue of trapped workers

Crews cut new hole in parkade wall to remove vehicle safely

Four members with Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans were out at Cultus Lake on March 28 and 29 hauling trash out of the waters. (Henry Wang)
PHOTOS: Out-of-town divers remove 100s of pounds of trash from Cultus Lake

Members of Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans hauled out 470 pounds of trash over two days

As of Saturday, April 10, people born in 1961 are the latest to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. (Black Press files)
B.C. residents age 60+ can now register to get their COVID-19 vaccine

Vaccine registration is now open to people born in 1961 or earlier

A new saline gargle test, made in B.C., will soon be replacing COVID-19 nasal swab tests for kids. (PHSA screenshot)
Take-home COVID-19 tests available for some B.C. students who fall ill at school

BC Children’s Hospital plans to provide 1,200 kits to Vancouver district schools this April

Sun Peaks is tracking rising COVID-19 cases. (Kamloops This Week Photo)
Sun Peaks sees spike in COVID-19 cases at end of ski season

On April 9, there were 15 positive cases confirmed.

Ruming Jiang and his dog Chiu Chiu are doing fine following a brush with hypothermia that saw several people work together to get them out of the Fraser River near Langley’s Derby Reach Park on March 25, 2021 (Special to the Advance Times)
Man finds men who rescued him from drowning in B.C.’s Fraser River

A grateful Ruming Jiang says he will thank them again, this time in person when the pandemic ends

Most Read