“I feel bad if people think we duped them,” says Hinchinbrooke dairy farmer Jason Erskine, speaking of the recent controversy that erupted when Calgary-based food writer Julie Van Rosendaal speculated on social media that butter was not softening at room temperature as much as it once did. She wondered if the reason for the alleged difference could be a palm byproduct that some farmers include in their forages. The suggestion kicked off a media frenzy, sparking outrage amongst foodies — and frustration in farm communities.
“I’m interested in having the conversation about butter if there really is a problem,” Erskine says, “but the accusations and suggestions of being betrayed … He pauses, then goes on: “It is easy to get a reaction from people. We are not putting palm oil in the milk.”
As a Montérégie-West dairy farmer representative with the Quebec Milk Producers Association, he says farmers “take pride in growing food to the highest standard,” and that any suggestion they don’t care is insulting. Also, and here Erskine laughs: “I don’t have any problems with my butter.”
Palmite, as palm supplement is sometimes known, is a source of palmitic acid derived from the palm oil industry. It is produced from the waste product that remains after the oil is extracted.
Roughly 25 per cent of producers may use the product; however, the vast majority are not feeding it to their entire herd. It is a costly supplement that is added to forages on the advice of nutritionists, who routinely analyze forage samples and then make recommendations to best meet an animal’s nutritive needs.
Palm supplement, when included in feed, is added at a rate of less than one per cent of the cow’s total diet. It is used to counter energy deficits in the animal, specifically during early lactation. It can lead to an increase in the amount of butterfat in the milk produced. It is not a new practice and is approved at the federal level for use in livestock feed.
Despite this, both the Dairy Farmers of Canada and the Quebec Milk Producers Association recommended at the end of February that producers consider feeding supplements that do not contain palm byproducts. Meanwhile, a group of experts will be assembled to investigate the science behind the issues raised by this controversy.
Erskine acknowledges the difficult situation; however, he stresses that palm products are among the more studied food additives, and that the fats are already known to be less than healthy. On the speculation that palm products are causing “hard” butter, he says “We haven’t had any conclusive evidence to say this is happening and this is the cause. There is no scientific proof.”
He goes on to say, “But we can’t say no, either. We don’t know,” and this, he admits, is a source of frustration for farmers.
What farmers do know is that food science is evolving and that “we are certainly better at feeding cows now than we were 10 years ago.” And he states that farmers have become accustomed to feeding their animals byproducts from different food industries.
One such product that is used by some farmers in the Valley is “wet brews,” or the spent grains from breweries. “As long as they are safe for the animals to ingest, there has not been a lot of questioning” among farmers, he says. “But we are always tracking how it will affect the milk quality.”