'Buttergate' goes viral, putting palm oil fat supplements in spotlight

Julie Van Rosendaal has a message for dairy producers: We love butter. Let’s figure this out. The Calgary-based food writer has been in the eye of a media frenzy since she started spreading the news about palm fat supplements creeping into the Canadian butter supply through cow feed.

Industry insiders question whether 'buttergate' is media hype or backed by science

Why Canadian butter is now staying hard at room temperature

3 years ago
Duration 3:28
Canadian butter has become world news since Calgary's own Julie Van Rosendaal broke the story. Turns out it's all to do with diet. And now, some are calling for a clamp down on dairy feed regulations.

Julie Van Rosendaal has a message for dairy producers: We love butter. Let's figure this out.

Clearly, butter matters. 

The Calgary-based food writer has been in the eye of a media frenzy since she started spreading the news about palm fat supplements creeping into the Canadian butter supply through cow feed.

She has fielded calls from media outlets around the world about a story that started with her own observation that butter at room temperature was no longer as soft as it used to be.

"Early in February, I posted on social media, as one does, just to gauge the prevalence of this phenomenon, and posted on twitter and Instagram and Facebook, and said "What's up? Do you guys notice a difference?" And I had hundreds of responses, Van Rosendaal said. 

That was the beginning of a slippery slope, as the news gathered momentum, soon confirming Van Rosendaal's theory that harder butter could be traced back to palm fat supplements in cow feed.

By the end of the week, "buttergate" had gone viral.

"Nigella Lawson tweeted me," said Van Rosendaal, referring to the famous English food writer.

"I knew we would connect over butter and we did — two times. The Times of London called the other day. I did Radio Melbourne, Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Did I mention Nigella yet?"

The New York Times, The Today Show and the BBC were also interested. 

But the media wasn't the only one asking questions. The industry has taken note.

The hard truth about Canadian butter

3 years ago
Duration 1:52
Canada's dairy producers are under fire after foodies claimed butter has become harder and put the blame on palm oil. Dairy farmers say adding palm products to cattle feed has become common, but critics say it violates a ‘moral contract’ about the purity of Canadian butter.

The Dairy Farmers of Canada group is recommending that producers stop the practice of feeding palm oil to dairy cows, and also announced it is putting together a working group to study the issue of fat supplementation in the dairy sector.

The group will include producers, processors, the Consumers' Association of Canada, veterinary nutritionists and animal scientists. 

The Quebec Milk Producers Association — the largest producers of dairy in Canada — is also looking at the use of palm fat in feed, and says it will follow the recommendations of the national group.

"Some groups have really taken a stand to make the move against using palm fat based supplements," Van Rosendaal said. "It's been fantastic that this nugget of an idea has turned into this big reaction. And I think it's great so many people are having conversations about it."

Agropur, the dairy co-operative based in Quebec, issued its own statement.

"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," the Quebec-based dairy collective wrote on its website and social media outlets. "Agropur … is actively involved in discussions with the dairy farmers' associations and its customers and consumers about palm oil."

Cookbook author and CBC food columnist Julie Van Rosendaal has been surprised by the international response to her 'buttergate' exposé. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Van Rosendaal said she is glad to see action on the issue.

"Food literacy is very important," she said. "And I think a lot of us are really disconnected from the source of our food and don't understand how our food systems work, how food is made and grown and raised, and produced from farm level to production to distribution to the consumer. Often what we see is just on store shelves."

It all started with Van Rosendaal's musings about butter consistency.

"People have been noticing for a while now that butter is firmer at room temperature, and so I kind of dug into it a few weeks ago, I had this theory that it had to do with a change in a fatty acid profile of the butter itself," Van Rosendaal told the Calgary Eyeopener last week.

  • Listen the the full interview on the Calgary Eyeopener here:

Adding palm oil fat to cow feed changes the fatty acid profile of the milk, and shows up in butter that's less spreadable.

"So fat supplements have been in the system for a while … but they've become more common in recent years to help farmers meet the increasing demand for butter fat," she said. "So five, 10 years ago, people wanted more fluid milk. They were buying margarine and there was less demand for butter. Now, everyone is baking and consumers want fat. So the farmers have had to respond to that."

In Canada, the pandemic has played a role in the change, as farmers culled a larger than usual number of dairy cows, right before demand surged for higher fat content in butter. 

"An increase in demand meant that farmers were trying to produce more, with a lower population of cows."

Palm oil is often added to feed in the form of palm kernel extract, which is what's left over after the palm kernel is crushed and the oil is extracted. 

Gordon MacBeath, chairman of the Dairy Farmers of P.E.I., said palm fat has been added to dairy cattle diets for years in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

As Van Rosendaal said, there are health questions around the use of palm oil additives.

"There are health concerns, there are environmental concerns, all kinds of concerns around the use of palm products, which mostly come from Indonesia and Malaysia," Van Rosendaal said. "And it's something that typically you can look for on the label — if you want to avoid palm fats, you can look on the ingredient list. But since it's in the feed itself, it's harder to decipher whether it's part of the process."

Now, people are asking questions about the dairy industry in this country. 

"The dairy industry in Canada is very protected. We have very few imports, under five per cent of our dairy is imported, and because tariff rates are so high, they're very expensive," Van Rosendaal said.

She noted that many pastry chefs will import European butter for its higher butter fat content.

"I picked up a half pound of French butter to test, and it had a $30 retail price tag on it — for half a pound! So, you know, it's very expensive. [Importing] is not a great solution."

In Canada, butter is required to have at least 80 per cent butter fat, Van Rosendaal said.

Thanks to buttergate, consumers are now demanding to know just where that fat is coming from.

Industry fears financial damage

Dairy Farmers of Canada maintains that palm supplements are safe, and notes they are federally approved for use in livestock feed. The recommended suspension of these supplements won't cause shortages of Canadian-made dairy products, the lobby group says, due to the supply-management system in place.

But animal science experts warn that ruling out palm-based feed supplements due to these new claims about consistency could cost Canadian dairy farmers and potentially lead to an increase in imports.

Dairy farmer Jake Vermeer of Vermeer's Dairy Ltd. in Camrose, Alta., said he is consulting with his cattle nutritionist about alternatives to palm supplements and is confident he'll find a way to adapt without compromising production or quality.

Vermeer said satisfying customers is his farm's first priority, but he's still waiting to hear from Dairy Farmers of Canada's working group about whether "buttergate" is backed up by science.

"I think the cows are the ones that will have to suffer in this, as palm oil is definitely a great energy source for them," he said.

The Dairy Farmers of Canada organization is recommending that producers stop the practice of feeding palm oil to dairy cows, and is putting together a working group to study the issue of fat supplementation in the dairy sector. ( Julie Van Rosendaal/CBC)

David Christensen, a professor emeritus of animal and poultry science at the University of Saskatchewan, said while he also has questions about the theory behind "buttergate," he's far more certain that the Dairy Farmers of Canada's directive is going to have negative repercussions for milk producers.

Without palm oil or its derivatives, Christensen said, dairy farmers are left with few options to meet their quotas.

Farmers could alter their feeding programs but there's no supplement as effective as palmitic acid in boosting milk fat to meet the requirements for butter, he said.

Lactanet chief operating officer Daniel Lefebvre, who advises Dairy Farmers of Canada about animal nutrition, said the elimination of palm supplements will likely create challenges for milk producers, who may not have the capacity to meet their quotas.

But ultimately, he said, losing markets because of consumer backlash poses a greater risk to the dairy industry than these disruptions to farmers' operations.

With files from Monty Kruger, Kevin Yarr, The Canadian Press and the Calgary Eyeopener.