Buttergate or BS?
When I first saw the activity on social media I thought it was a joke. As it gained momentum I was struck by the power of social media and how little (actually mostly a complete lack of facts) it took to turn this into a huge issue. I frankly wish the industry had responded better. I am doing some research for both a more structured post on the issue and also two panels where I will talk to experts about the technical and practical issues around this situation. Stay tuned for the podcast/video discussion if you want to learn about the issue. This is a stream of consciousness brain dump to help me form and organize my thoughts for later.
So what is true 1?
Dairy farmers feed palm oil to cows.
Farmers have done it for years. Farmers in countries that have modern dairy industries feed palm oil - this is not Canada alone. Now don’t get me wrong, we’re not talking troughs full of palm oil here. It is small quantities representing a small proportion of the total ration. When it is used (and as I understand it is not used all of the time) it provides more energy to the cow. I am looking forward to hearing more detail in my discussion with a nutritionist tomorrow.
There is an argument that we shouldn’t be using palm oil from an environmental perspective. It is also worth noting that there a certification programs for palm oil - just as there are for animal welfare, coffee, and other products. If we have the discussion we should perhaps differentiate on that level too. Some (perhaps most) palm plantations aren’t very sustainable. Tomorrow I am talking to a food scientist who will help me understand palm and other oils and is actually working to give other oils the characteristics that make palm oil attractive.
You’d be surprised at how many processed food products have palm oil in them. Not palm oil in precursors to them but actually added to them. This includes food products such as pizza dough, instant noodles, margarine (that you might switch to in your outrage over butter), chocolate, cookies, bread and more. There is also palm oil in soaps, shampoos, cosmetics, and other household items. If we are going to have a discussion on the environmental impacts of palm oil we should do it in the context of the broader use of palm oil. Highlighting individual cases is misleading. If there is a broken “social contract” it is with the entire food industry.
So what is true 2?
There is palmitic acid (the fatty acid in palm oil) in milk.
Cows and humans synthesize the stuff naturally. Breast milk has palmitic acid in it regardless of whether the mother has eaten products with palm oil in them. Cows milk has quite a bit of it in it, even if they are not fed palm oil. There is palmitic acid in meat. It’s there. Feeding palm oil does affect how much palmitic acid there is in milk but the difference is relatively small and only comes at higher feeding levels (again, I will learn more in my upcoming discussion).
The level of palmitic acid in milk MAY affect the consistency of the butter from that milk. As I understand it, the dairy industry is evaluating the data on all fatty acids in milk to see if there are changes (although there it is not clear that there are real changes in milk or butter - see below).
The important point here is that adding small amounts of palm oil to a dairy ration is not what is producing palmitic acid in milk.
What is not true 1?
The industry has suggest farmers stop using palm oil so it must be bad.
This is classic crisis management. I would argue not done particularly well. It is amazing how this blew up on social media and then became a media firestorm. It speaks to the power of social media. But it doesn’t mean that we even understand that there is an issue with butter. It also doesn’t mean that palm oil caused it if there is a difference. This strikes me as a knee jerk reaction - ready, fire, aim. There is perhaps an opportunity to take a leadership position on using an unsustainable ingredient but that has been completely absent from the discussion so far. A better response might have been - “we have data and are looking at it.” They could have even suggested that producers reduce the use of palm oil in the short term until it is studied but this is not a health issue.
What is not true 2?
This is another reason to end supply management.
I have seen critics say this issue wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have supply management. I have often said there may be value in having an objective discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of supply management - and there are both. That objectivity has been absent from both sides of the debate. But it is not clear that this is an issue with supply management and there are several reasons to suggest it is not.
Palm oil as an feed ingredient is not unique to Canada. I understand that its use is higher in some countries for a variety of reasons - not least the energy levels of the local feed. Some producers in New Zealand, often touted because of the pastured nature of their dairy industry, feed significantly higher levels of palm oil because they need the energy that Canadian cows get from silage and grain. This may or may not be an issue with butter because so much affects butter quality and base levels of palmitic acid differ.
Supply management may actually provide the price stability to reduce the incentive to use palm oil relative to other countries. There are times within the supply management structure that there is a short term incentive to increase fat content (called incentive days) which incentivize farmers to feed palm oil in the short term. There are, however, other market mechanisms (higher prices for the fat component of milk as an example) that occur outside of supply management.
What do we not know 1?
Is there a difference in the butter? There are many many Canadians on social media who feel like their butter has changed. We don’t know if that is real. I will tell you in my very small sample (my house) there is no change in the butter and a friend tells me his is softer. It remains soft and spreadable on my counter. That doesn’t, however, mean there is no change.
I would expect some natural variability (think about the variability you get when you buy different steaks as an example). I hear stories of bakers having favourite brands of butter. I know there is science that says butter from more grass heavy diets (like organic) is softer at room temperature. There are differences in diets during the year depending on what is harvested and available.
It is worth exploring, but we can’t say definitively that butter has changed in the last 4-12 months. Making dramatic changes without knowing what is happening means we may not be dealing with a real problem or (see next point) we are not actually solving the problem if it exists.
What we do not know 2?
If there is a difference is palm oil causing it? There may or may not be a difference in the butter. If there is, it may or may not be from palm oil feeding. There is, however, some reason to suggest it is not.
Palm oil has been fed for many years. Supplemental fat has been used for a long time and the choice of fat has been driven by pricing, efficacy, and to a degree by the BSE crisis many years ago which stopped the use of animal products in feed. A sudden current change is unlikely to have been driven by a long term practice.
It is not clear that there is a change in palm oil use in the past few months. Retail butter and cream demand has increased substantially. There does not seem to have been a change in the pricing of fat in Canada or in the number of incentive days that would have encouraged use. The Canadian industry responded more quickly to the COVID crisis than others like the US, so there was not significant decreases in the number of cows that would have encouraged more palm oil use to boost production quickly.
If there is no change in the palm oil feeding, it is unlikely to have been a contributor to a potential change in butter consistency.
It is also worth noting that Lacatnet in Quebec has been monitoring milk fatty acid composition over the past few years and has stated that there is no significant change in the fatty acid profile of milk there which reinforces the suggestion that there is not a significant change in feeding behaviours or cattle nutrition.
The questions of butter quality and palm oil usage deserve some discussion. The discussion should be based on the foundation of real data and information and some objective analysis. None of that has happened to date. It is to the detriment of not only the dairy industry but also consumers everywhere.
#butter, palm oil, milk, palmitic acid, dairy, buttergate
Recommended citation format: von Massow, Michael. "Buttergate or BS?". Food Focus Guelph (11), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, February 26, 2021.