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Directive based on 'buttergate' claims could cost dairy farmers, experts say

A new directive issued in response to "buttergate" could make it hard for dairy farmers to keep up with demand for the staple ingredient, according to experts, who suspect that the controversy may be rooted less in fact than media frenzy.

A new directive issued in response to "buttergate" could make it hard for dairy farmers to keep up with demand for the staple ingredient, according to experts, who suspect that the controversy may be rooted less in fact than media frenzy.

Last week, Dairy Farmers of Canada asked its members to find alternatives to palm supplements in cattle feed while a working group looks into consumer concerns that butter has become harder as a result of such additives.

The move came after media reports linked a purported change in consistency to the common practice of bolstering cows' diets with palm byproducts.

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 Canadian-made dairy products, the lobby group says, due to the supply management system that limits production to keep prices stable.

But animal science experts warn that ruling out palm-based feed supplements based on questionable claims about their effects on butter's consistency could cost Canadian dairy farmers and potentially lead to an increase in imports.

Professor Adam Lock, who studies dairy cattle nutrition at Michigan State University, said farmers have used palm oil and its derivative, palmitic acid, to help cattle meet their energy needs for decades, and there are no alternative feed supplements that are as efficient and economical.

He harbours serious reservations about the scientific merits of "buttergate," which has spread to become an international media sensation.

Lock believes the Dairy Farmers of Canada's denouncement of palm supplements is a misguided response that could cause significant challenges for the association's members. 

"It seems like rather a knee-jerk reaction," Lock said. "It's dangerous and wrong to try and blame any potential changes in milk fat and quality (on) ... a single group of feed ingredients when we know there are so many factors that affect milk fat composition."

"Buttergate" proponents believe that dairy farmers are adding more palm supplements to cattle feed to keep up with pandemic-fuelled demand for the baking ingredient. In their view, an increased palmitic acid content of butter would increase the melting point and make it harder to spread at room temperature.

But Lock said there's no solid data to support this hypothesis.

Lock said the chemical composition of milk is too complex to pinpoint a single fatty acid as the reason for changes in a product's properties.

Palmitic acid is one of the most common naturally occurring fatty acids in butter. Feed supplements only cause a slight increase in their abundance, Lock said, and this is offset by changes in other fatty acids.

For farmers, he said, a minor increase in palmitic acid content can be crucial to meeting butterfat quotas, but the difference is nutritionally negligible in terms of human consumption.

Palm oil is the world's most-consumed vegetable oil, and can be found in products ranging from soap to cookies. But some critics say the Canadian dairy sector shouldn't be supporting palm oil production practices that lay waste to the environment.

Lock suggested these concerns may be overblown. Many feed supplements use palm byproducts, which cows can digest but aren't suitable for direct human consumption, and may be otherwise wasted, he said. 

Jake Vermeer of Vermeer's Dairy Ltd in Camrose, Alta., said he's 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. 

David Christensen, a professor emeritus of animal and poultry science at 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.

Alternatively, Christensen said producers could work more cows to maintain operations, but that may not make economic sense for some farmers. 

Ultimately, Christensen said imports will compensate for any shortfall in the Canadian butter supply, but farmers are bound to face greater costs to produce the same amount of milk fat.

Eric Baumann, who operates a dairy farm near Athens, Ont., said he's sticking with palm supplements because the practice is compliant with federal safety regulations, and he believes it's best for his cattle and his bottom line.

"Getting mad at dairy farmers about the use of palm oil is like getting mad at the garbage person for the amount of waste that is produced," Baumann said. "The garbage isn't there because of the disposal service, and palm oil byproducts aren't created because of dairy farmers."

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.

"The reaction of the consumer, fuelled by some media hype that was not based on facts, caused too much of a threat to the dairy industry that they couldn't not do anything," said Lefebvre.

"The unfortunate situation is that it's not facts and science that prevailed but public perception."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 2, 2021.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press