The "buttergate" conundrum

Some Canadians believe their butter’s gotten harder to spread.

Canada’s butter made headlines in late February when a number of Canadians noticed their butter wasn’t spreading like it used to. Even at room temperature, they complained, it wasn’t softening to an easily spreadable consistency. While Calgary-based writer Julie Van Rosendaal brought the issue to prominence in a Globe and Mail article published Feb. 20, consumers quickly took to social media to agree with her, saying her article validated their observations.

“Disturbing reports are now pointing at some farming practices that may have altered the quality of the butter we buy,” wrote Sylvain Charlebois, senior director at the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, in a Feb. 24 opinion piece titled “Buttergate: The ‘hard’ truth about Canadian butter.” Since at least last summer, he wrote, thousands of dairy farmers have been using livestock feed that contains palm oil. “Sources suggest it has been going on for more than a decade, but the problem has become more apparent since August of last year, when butter demand went up suddenly [due to the COVID-19 pandemic>,” wrote Charlebois. “Palm oil given to dairy cows increases the proportion of saturated fat in milk compared to unsaturated fat, thus increasing the melting point of butter. This explains why butter made from cows fed with palm oil remains difficult to spread at room temperature.”

“Buttergate” gained a lot of traction in the media, even beyond our borders, prompting Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) to announce it would be launching an investigation into the practice. DFC also asked farmers to consider alternatives to palm supplements in cattle feed until the results were in.

Canadian research firm Caddle surveyed more than 8,600 Canadians on the issue, and shared its findings with Canadian Grocer. Among those who consume butter at least weekly, the research showed 37.9% noticed a difference in spreadability of their butter (meaning they either agreed or strongly agreed that “butter has been harder to spread over the last six months”). But when they split those consumers into groups based on whether they had heard of “buttergate” or not, 43.1% of those who were aware of the story noticed a difference in spreadability, but for those who weren’t aware, only 16% felt their butter had changed.

“The buttergate story is a prime example of how proliferation in the media can influence consumer awareness and perception of a subject matter,” says Ransom Hawley, CEO of Caddle. “There was a significant difference in consumer perception regarding ‘hardness of butter’ for those who had already heard of buttergate. Whether this is a placebo effect from the media virality of the subject or not, the dairy industry’s rapid response shows just how nimble you have to be as a brand or industry in our current consumer climate.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer‘s March/April 2021 issue.

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