Moving Forward on Hard Butter and Palm Fat Feeding
I reflected here last week on what we know, what we don't know and what we need to know relative to the issues raised with respect hard butter and the feeding of palm fat to dairy cows. I think there remain real gaps in our knowledge and we need to be careful not to rush to ill-informed judgments. I also think it is critical that we engage proactively in addressing the concerns.
I believe that there are two distinct issues here. The first is the real perception that there is a change in the hardness of Canadian butter. The second is the question of feeding palm supplements to dairy cattle. Both issues need consideration and they may or may not be connected.
We need to figure out what is happening with butter. Telling people they are wrong without evidence will not work. The truth is that people think that butter is different. We know that many things, including the fatty acid profile, can affect butter hardness. We know there is variability. We don't know if it has changed and are unlikely to be able to say so definitively given the speed at which we burn through butter inventories. It is worth remembering that the people who are complaining about butter are fans of it. I expect that hardness testing will become a more regular occurrence at butter processors.
We can, however, look back to see if there are any factors that might have changed and contributed to a difference in hardness. We should do that. I think it is possible it has to do with palm fat feeding but it is not the only thing that could contribute to it. There are some factors (no change in use is one example) that may suggest it is less likely related to palm fat. There is also word from Lactanet in Quebec that they did not see a significant change in fatty acid profiles in milk over the past year and they test a lot of milk. I believe that there is more data and we will hear about it once its been analyzed. All of that said, it could be palm fat feeding. If its not we should figure out what else it could be. Let's not jump to conclusions but rather look for evidence of what is or is not happening. Otherwise we end up with both problems continuing.
There is clear evidence that butter from grass fed cows is softer than that from cows fed a total mixed ration. This may or may not have something to do with supplemental fat in the mixed ration. It is also worth noting that grass fed can also have other impacts on milk. I've had grass fed organic milk and did not like the flavour at all. I've not tried the butter. These things are never simple and we need to think about the tradeoffs.
I believe that the rush to judgement will make it difficult to find what is happening and that is not a good thing. I think telling people who perceive that their butter has changed that they are wrong is also the wrong approach. This is about how hard butter is. We're not making people sick here. If we acknowledge the question and work at finding answers I think consumers will appreciate it.
On the palm side I think there is a real need to have a conversation. We are in this conundrum that people don't have a good understanding of either palm oil or how it is used in dairy. There are real concerns about the sustainability of palm oil production. They may justify not using palm fats in dairy production. There are questions about certification which I can't answer right now. There may be sustainable options here that address the concerns of consumers.
There have been some suggestions that the product used in dairy feeds is a byproduct and I am not sure if it is true. There are two dominant fats in palm oil - palmitic acid and oleic acid. They are used for different things. Palm oil is broken down into different combinations of the component parts depending on what it is used for. I don't know if palmitic acid is used less than oleic acid which would mean that palmitic is a byproduct that might otherwise be wasted or if it is another value added output. My guess is the later - particularly given the comments on the cost of feeding it. Regardless, even creating demand for a byproduct creates demand for the primary product.
I do know this is a small amount of the total palm fat used but I also think that is a troublesome comment. We see lots of people (including ag) pointing fingers at others relative to GHG emissions. Not sure that works. We use less than others ignores that fact that we are part of the demand. It is worth saying the dairy industry doesn't use a lot and that there are real benefits of using it. This is an opportunity to engage with the public to talk about what the industry is doing and why it is doing it.
Our research shows that if we talk to consumers about antibiotics in chicken and beef production - regulatory framework, use with vets, used for therapeutic (rather than preventative), etc. then consumers are much more accepting and the value gap to raised without antibiotics closes substantially. How the industry responds (regardless of whether we continue to use palm fat in the long term) will affect not only this situation but future questions about production practices. I think open discussion of how and why is critical. That's not happened yet to a significant degree.
I will close with a follow up to a post I recently made about awareness of the issue. I've spoken to several non-ag Canadians who were blissfully unaware of the issue. I saw a reference to a recent survey which suggested that 40% of Canadians were aware of the discussion. I expect that the furor will die down. But it won't disappear. The fact that many don't know is an opportunity to engage them and have this discussion about the tradeoffs. It may still lead to a discontinuation of the use of palm fats (it may not) but if there is no engagement by the industry (which includes not just speaking but listening) there will be no ability to influence the decision. I know it drives farmers crazy to have someone "tell them how to farm" but every industry has to listen to consumers and address their needs and wants or lose them. Canadians feel very good about their dairy industry. That is an opportunity to engage them and show that that confidence is warranted.
#keywords: dairy, butter, palm oil, food, palmitic acid
Recommended citation format: von Massow, Michael. "Moving Forward on Hard Butter and Palm Fat Feeding". Food Focus Guelph (112), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, March 3, 2021.