Palming Off Hard Butter on Canadians

Feb. 25, 2021

Don't tear up our bread, eh?

If there ever were any doubts that social media profoundly affects the food industry, look no further than the Great Canadian Palm Feed Cow Caper.

It all started when a Canadian noticed that his butter was getting noticeably harder to spread on his morning toast. This wasn’t just any toast-muncher; it was Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. So he sent out a simple tweet, under his handle, The Food Professor: “Is it me, or is #butter much harder now?”

That got the butterball rolling. Thousands of other butter users chimed in to say they had noticed the same thing, and before long, a possible culprit was fingered: Canadian dairy farmers feeding palm oil byproducts to their cows. Dairy farmers were hard-pressed to ramp up production to meet demand caused by the pandemic, with consumers using lots of butter for baking and other home cooking; palm extracts are a cheap way to stretch cattle feed.

Julie Van Rosendaal, a columnist for the Toronto Globe and Mail, had independently noticed how her butter had hardened. When she saw it confirmed on Twitter, she looked into the matter and got a message from someone who works in the cattle-feed industry, informing her about the palm extract situation. Van Rosendaal writes that when cows eat that stuff, it can have a significant effect on the butterfat in the milk they produce, resulting in harder butter. As she puts it: “When it comes to dairy, what comes out has very much to do with what goes in.”

Some of the commenters are taking this kind of personally, due in large part to Canada’s subsidy system for dairy. There are strict controls over how much Canada’s dairy farmers can produce; in exchange, they’re guaranteed an income. (Former President Trump fulminated against this system during trade negotiations.) That makes for a kind of social pact, at least in the view of some Canadians. As Charlebois, the professor who started this whole thing, told The Guardian: “Milk and butterfat are to be considered as public goods, because of our government quota system. There is a moral contract between the dairy industry and consumers.”

Well. Down here we’re a little more laissez-faire with our dairy farmers, at least to the point of not putting them on salary. But when it comes to subsidies for the dairy industry, U.S. consumers pay about eight times more per capita than Canadians.

I don’t begrudge anyone the money, certainly not American dairy farmers, who have been suffering for years. But it wouldn’t occur to me to, say, tweet at Land O’Lakes, “Your butter tore up my bagel this morning. I’m not getting my subsidy’s worth.”

I guess that’s part of Canada’s charm. A smaller population leads to more accountability, if only because it’s harder for anyone to hide.

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