Items in this column are compiled from Progressive Dairy staff news sources. Send news items to Karen Lee

Lee karen
Managing Editor / Progressive Dairy

What happened?

Back in December, Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, mentioned on social media an observation that butter seemed to remain hard at room temperature. In early February, Calgary-based food writer Julie Van Rosendaal posted a picture of butter on her Twitter account @dinnerwithjulie and wrote: “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?”

She also posted on Instagram and Facebook and received hundreds of responses.

The hardness factor did not seem to apply to all butter. A fair amount of people did not share the same observation and had no concerns with their butter. In addition, no one could pinpoint a specific brand or product. Both Charlebois and Rosendaal conducted non-scientific experiments, setting out different types of butter on their countertops and shared their anecdotal evidence with the media.

At this point, the so-called “buttergate” had the attention of international media outlets such as the BBC, The Today Show and the New York Times. A lot of speculation emerged on the cause of the harder butter. Some people blamed winter, the colder weather and colder room temperatures.


Another theory was that due to the pandemic and closures, lower-grade butter was diverted from food service outlets to retail stores. The reason that garnered the most attention was speculation into the use of palmitic acid supplements, a byproduct of palm oil, as a feed ingredient for dairy cows.

Palm oil is a widely used vegetable oil and can be found in cosmetics, pizza dough, soaps, margarine, chocolate, biofuels and breads. It is also a point of health and environmental concern for some consumers. Palm oil is not an ingredient in butter, nor is it directly fed to cows. Instead, cows do what they do best by converting a waste or byproduct of palm oil processing into consumable product. These palm-based supplements are approved for use by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and have been fed to dairy cows for decades in Canada, as well as the U.S., the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

Palmitic acid supplements are an energy source in the cows’ diet and improve fibre digestion and triglyceride synthesis. A standard amount fed is about 200 to 250 grams of the supplement (less than 1% of the cow’s diet). Whether or not cows are fed these supplements, palmitic acid is one of the most prevalent fatty acids found in the milk they produce because the cow’s body can synthesize it on its own. The amount of palmitic acid in milk can fluctuate based on seasonal and regional variations, but Canada’s milk recording agency has seen nothing out of the normal range.

“Our data from routine analyses of the fatty acid profile in milk do not indicate any increase in the proportion of palmitic acid in the past year beyond what would normally be expected,” explains Daniel Lefebvre, chief operations officer at Lactanet.

There is no evidence that feeding these supplements have altered the structure of butter, and nothing more than anecdotal evidence exists to suggest butter has changed.

Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) maintains all milk produced in Canada is nutritious and safe to consume. However, out of respect for consumer concern, DFC announced the formation of a working group comprised of stakeholders and experts to assess current literature, gaps in data, and look into issues that have been raised by consumers. A diverse range of stakeholders will be invited to participate, with representation from dairy farmers, processors, internal and external experts. They will also seek the views of consumers as part of this exercise.

Gay Lea Foods, a dairy cooperative with dairy farm members in Ontario and Manitoba, agrees with this plan.

“We recognize the concerns that are being raised by our consumers and are supporting fully the initiatives by Dairy Farmers of Canada as they take a process science-backed approach by independent industry experts,” says Michael Barrett, president and CEO of Gay Lea Foods.

He assures consumers and producer members that the cooperative is focused on quality products and consumer satisfaction. “Gay Lea Foods has and will continue to abide by all regulatory parameters in the production of not only butter but all dairy products,” Barrett say “As a market-driven business, our consumers and the changing needs and desire of our consumers is very important to us and to all dairy processors,” he adds.

While the group of experts seeks fact-based explanations, DFC has asked dairy farmers to consider alternatives to palm supplements. A few provincial milk organizations followed suit and issued their own public statements not to feed it, including Les Producteurs de lait du Quebec.

This was well received by one of the largest dairy food producers in eastern Canada. Agropur, the Quebec-based dairy products cooperative, posted on its website: “Agropur welcomes the decision by Producteurs de lait du Québec (PLQ) to ask dairy farmers to stop using palm oil derivatives in dairy cow feed. … It is actively involved in discussions with the dairy farmers’ associations and its customers and consumers about palm oil.”

Several dairy cattle nutritionists and food scientists raised their concerns on the lack of scientific merit behind the entire discussion. Some even challenged the directive from DFC asking producers to seek alternative options to palm-based supplements, as they are an unlikely culprit to an unknown problem. Lefebvre defended the decision, noting a fault in consumer trust could do greater harm to the industry.

What’s next?

Lefebvre has been appointed chair of the DFC working group, which held its first meeting on March 5. They identified several focus areas from cow nutrition and sustainability to manufacturing and the environment.

“There are a number of areas we want to look at,” Lefebvre says.

Starting with cows, they will review literature on the impact of palm products on milk components and dairy cow nutrition, as well as the potential impacts of alternative feed strategies producers could consider. Some palm-based supplements are not fed for increased milkfat, but improving cow health. It will be important to consider how those animals will be affected in terms of health and fertility. For the palm-based supplements, they want to gather information on the prevalence and products. “We want to get a better idea of usage [of palm products] across Canada,” Lefebvre says.

In addition, the working group will look at how the palm-based supplements are sourced and certified in terms of sustainable production practices. The group will work with milk processors to understand how the different aspects of milk handling and processing techniques could impact butter consistenc “We want to reach out to manufacturers to see if anything has changed,” he says. They will inquire about assessments used to monitor butter properties and what data is kept, noting changes over time.

There is not a lot of literature directly linking feeding palm products to manufactured dairy products, but there is some on the fatty acid profile of milk and its effect on processing. The group plans to review all that is available. They also plan to consider alternative scenarios and will study the impact of withdrawing or replacing palm-based supplements.

Since these are byproducts of a production practice that already exists, if they are replaced with another lipid they want to know what the impact of that production might be. “Palm fat has a very high yield,” Lefebvre says, noting an alternative might require a lot more acreage to produce a similar result. “Conversely, if we remove it completely, we will need more cows to fill production demands,” he says. That will have its own impact.

Lefebvre is confident the group will be able to carry out the scope of their assignment. “We have a great team assembled with a lot of expertise in different areas,” he says. The working group planned to meet again before the end of March to reveal initial findings and set a timeline for the gathering and release of evidence-based conclusions on the hardness of butter and any relation to the use of palm supplements in dairy.

Meanwhile, nutritionists across Canada will continue to advise their farm clients on the best feeding strategies to meet the needs of their cows. Daniel Scothorn, a nutritionist and coach at Scothorn Nutrition, estimates half of P5 producers, and more than half of western Canada producers feed these products.

Kathleen Shore, ruminant nutritionist with Grand Valley Fortifiers, agrees the supplements are fairly commonly used. “It fits in when cows are lacking energy and need a boost from their diet, or to help increase butterfat production,” Shore says. “Anecdotally, it helps condition and indirectly reproduction,” Scothorn adds.

Both nutritionists report clients that have reached out to discuss removal from the diet and looking for other options – but also cite producers that want to continue to feed out what they have on hand. “Many have inventories that they wish to consume, or they have a desire to feed lower amounts because of their anecdotal experience with improved health (BCS and reproduction),” Scothorn says.

Talking any ration change over with your nutritionist is advised. “It is a decision to make on a farm-by-farm basis,” Shore says. “It was put in the diet for a reason. If we take it out, we need to make sure we have enough energy.” She says there may be other plant botanicals that can be used as a replacement if the palm-based supplements are being fed for rumen health, but finding a replacement for energy is more challenging.  “There are no suitable alternatives that specifically provide high amounts of palmitic acid,” Scothorn says. “Plant-based oils, such as canola, corn and soy, are not commonly distilled into palmitic acid due to the cost of setting up oleochemical plants and the fact they would have to compete with palm-sourced C16, so we will not see any economical alternatives.”

Bottom line

“Without palmitic acid, we will lose the benefits associated with it, such as its impact on improving triglyceride formation at the mammary gland and general improvements in whole diet fat and organic matter digestibility,” Scothorn says.

On the other hand, the industry is facing a potential market loss from consumer concerns that it is working hard to address.