Canadians Outraged by Dairy Industry's Use of Palm Oil in Cattle Feed

Hard butter. Non-foaming lattes. Weird cheese. Welcome to 'Buttergate.'

cows feeding
A herd of cows feeds on a dairy farm.

Getty Images

Butter doesn't get soft in my house at room temperature, but I always figured that's because the thermostat stays at 65˚F (18˚C). It turns out, though, that butter's persistent firmness has less to do with my preference for a cool home and more with what Canadian dairy farmers are feeding their cows.

Reports have emerged in recent weeks of cows being fed supplements derived from palm oil to increase the butterfat content of their milk. The practice is partly a response to surging demand for butter during the pandemic, when everyone was baking more than ever, but the number of cows producing milk had not increased accordingly. The fastest way for the industry to respond was to boost butterfat in that milk using supplements.

Sylvain Charlebois is a food economist and director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. He has been investigating this hard-butter issue since October and was the one who coined the term "Buttergate," which has taken over Canadian social media of late. Treehugger spoke to Professor Charlebois about the controversy and asked him to explain what is going on.

"This is the result of supply management. Dairy farmers are paid based on the amount of milk they produce, but the big money is in butterfat. To increase butterfat output, you have to work on how you feed your animals. So you play around with forage, but also with supplements, including palmitic acids. But the problem with palmitic acids is that, if you give too much of it, it increases the level of saturated fat in butterfat, so the point of fusion [melting point] for products like butter will go up."

Palmitic acid supplements are derived from imported palm oil and are given to cows in pellet, flake, and micropill form. It's a perfectly legal supplement, according to Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC), and is used in other countries as well to "provide energy to cows [with] no undesirable effects." The dairy board reassures consumers that all milk products produced in Canada are perfectly safe and that the amounts of supplements used are very small. 

But based on Canadians' dismay at the discovery of a link between butter and palm oil, it appears the issue is more complicated than DFC acknowledges. As Charlebois explained, "A lot of Canadians have been deliberately trying to avoid palm oil in their diets, only to realize that palm oil is being used in the dairy industry." It feels like a betrayal.

pound of butter
Getty Images/Stephen Gibson/EyeEm

What's the Problem?

First, there's the nutrition question. Despite the Dairy Farmers of Canada’s assurance that it’s safe, people don’t necessarily want to be adding palm fats to their diet. Julie Van Rosendaal wrote for the Globe and Mail: "The World Health Organization has reported, in a public consultation that included Health Canada, that though total intake of saturated fat was not associated with coronary heart disease risk, a higher intake of palmitic acid is."

Then there's the problem of altered taste and texture, due to palm fats showing up in dairy. Baristas in British Columbia have complained of non-foaming milk and cheese-lovers of altered texture, but butter is where it's most noticeable for consumers. Van Rosendaal cites research by David Christensen, a professor in the department of animal and poultry science at the University of Saskatchewan. He found that about 35% of palmitic acid consumed in feed appears in milk. "It has been suggested that more than 32% palmitic acid in milk fatty acids may result in noticeable changes in butter and cheese characteristics."

Most disturbing for me, however, is the environmental piece of this puzzle. Palm oil has a notorious reputation for driving tropical deforestation, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia, which produce 85% of the world's palm oil supply. This rapid expansion has destroyed habitats for the Sumatran rhino, orangutans, and pygmy elephants. Fires set to clear jungle growth and carbon-rich peat soils pollute the air, and some smolder for years, impossible to put out. Even national parks and protected regions are at risk, with WWF reporting that nearly half of Sumatra's Tesso Nilo National Park is now overrun with illegal palm plantations.

Tropical rainforests are destroyed at an alarming rate and replaced with palm oil plantations. Gavin Pearsons/Oxford Scientific/Getty

This tremendous expansion is driven by demand for palm oil, which is now the most abundant on the planet. Palm oil is found in roughly 50% of products sold in supermarkets, as it's cheap to produce and stays solid at room temperature, making it perfect for baked goods and packaged foods. It has a high cooking temperature and smoke point, providing crispiness when desired, and a smooth mouthfeel; it's also added to cosmetics, cleaning products, chocolate, fuels, and more. 

Some organizations are making significant efforts to clean up the palm oil industry through improved agricultural practices, certification processes, and online satellite monitoring. Big brands are notified when their palm oil suppliers engage in illegal expansion, which in turn has driven them to take action, even if it seems woefully inadequate at times. So there is some hope on the horizon – but the palm oil industry is still not one that I, as an ethical consumer and someone who prioritizes local products, want to support. That is precisely why, for many years, I've avoided products that have it (or any of its sneaky aliases) on the ingredient list.

Canada's Unique Dairy System

Butter was supposed to be different. The dairy industry in Canada is tightly regulated and operates under a quota system, where only "a privileged few," according to Sylvain Charlebois, can produce milk. He describes it as essentially a public good: "We are paying dairy farmers CAD$1.75 billion [US$1.4 billion] in compensation over the next few years to produce high quality milk and butterfat." He's referring to compensation for "increased global access to our markets under new trade deals such as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, also known as the new NAFTA" (via an op-ed he wrote for the Globe and Mail). 

Even though palmitic acid is fed to dairy cows in the U.S., too, Charlebois explained that it's not the same system and should not be compared. Butter's retail price is two to three times more expensive in Canada than in the United States. Canadians' social contract with the dairy sector means that "we've all agreed to this as citizens, but in return we expect high quality products." The discovery of palm oil being used in dairy violates that social contract and undermines the DFC's long-standing Blue Cow campaign, which claims to value local, sustainable, natural practices and clearly violates the promise that you're "holding a product that’s made with 100% Canadian milk and milk ingredients."

Charlebois added, "Dairy has been subject to criticism for many years, but most of that criticism came from activists, from groups who believed that dairy farming should be outlawed. But this time around with butterfat, criticism is coming from dairy product consumers."

What's the Solution?

As for what's going to happen, DFC has convened a committee to look into the practice, and Charlebois said it will be up to the provinces to decide if they want to ban the practice or not. "Quebec will probably consider that option quite seriously," he said. The number of farmers using palmitic acids in that province is only 22%, compared to Western Canada, where it's 90%. The difference is the availability of corn, which can be used in place of palmitic acids.

"Corn is not available in the prairies, so once you use palmitic acids, you're hooked. You use more. It's like a drug. Very rarely will a farmer use palmitic acids and then drop it. It's like steroids, essentially. You'll see results and butterfat will increase and your costs will remain the same."

Another possible replacement is canola, and it is favorable for being a Canadian-grown crop. Supporting other sectors seems like a good idea, but Dr. Peter Tyedmers, a professor at Dalhousie's School for Resource and Environment Studies, warns that switching lipid (fat) sources has global effects that we need to acknowledge. He told Treehugger over email,

"Even if all dairy farmers shifted to only sourcing from, say, soy oil, that demand would displace other possible consumers of soy oil to some other source of lipid with the knock-on effect that some other sector elsewhere ends up buying the palm oil. The upshot is that, while any one or another sector can avoid palm and the association with its serious negative effects, collectively we are all responsible for these, even if indirectly, unless demand is reduced."

Van Rosendaal's article in the Globe and Mail raises another uncomfortable point – that no supplement is as efficient as palm. She quotes Dr. Barry Robinson, an animal nutrition expert from Alberta: "Use of palm fat reduces the number of cows necessary to fulfill the dairy quota in Canada." It decreases dairy's carbon footprint because 5% fewer cows are needed to produce the same amount of butterfat. 

Should consumers be blamed for viewing butter naively as a pure ingredient, rather than the product of agricultural inputs? Charlebois quickly put an end to that thinking. "I never would expect consumers to really understand agriculture. It's unreasonable to expect consumers to understand what goes on. The onus is on boards to educate the public honestly and with way more transparency."

In the meantime, palm oil can be avoided by buying organic or grass-fed butter from smaller-scale producers, but these cost twice as much as conventional butter (US$9.50/pound at my local supermarket). The best approach is to contact local dairy producers or the DFC and speak out against the use of palmitic acids in order to put pressure on them to change the practice.

Treehugger reached out to Dairy Farmers of Canada for comment, but had not yet received a reply at time of publication.

View Article Sources
  1. "Dairy Farmers of Canada Convening Expert Committee on Fat Supplementation in Cow Feed." Dairy Farmers of Canada, 2021.

  2. Kadandale, Sowmya, et al. "The Palm Oil Industry and Noncommunicable Diseases." Bulletin of the World Health Organization, vol. 97, no. 2, 2018, pp. 118-128, doi:10.2471/blt.18.220434

  3. "What is Palm Oil? Facts About the Palm Oil Industry." World Wildlife Fund.