By Sylvain Charlebois
The Dairy Farmers of Canada should be commended for asking members to stop using palmitic acids in feed while launching a national investigation into the matter.
For likely the very first time in its history, arguably the most powerful lobby group in the country opted to listen to Canadians. It’s not easy to admit publicly that something isn’t right, especially in Canadian dairy.
Early on as questions arose about hard butter, the Dairy Farmers of Canada said nothing was wrong.
Then on Feb. 19, the group acknowledged that the issue needed to be addressed and created a committee to look at the issue.
Then on Feb. 25, the group halted the practice of feeding palmitic acids to dairy cattle and launched a more complete investigation. That’s quite the reversal.
Dairy boards are accustomed to criticism. However, much of the criticism in the past came from groups such as animal welfare activists and vegans, who believe the sector should be outlawed.
This time was different. Criticism came from consumers who love Canadian dairy products.
Whether the use of the palm oil byproduct in feed is the reason butter is hard isn’t the only issue. Canadians were stunned most to learn that palm oil, a product from the other side of the world, was part of our dairy production process. Most Canadians just didn’t know. It also raises questions about other things we might want to know about dairy production but don’t.
We protect and compensate Canadian dairy farmers and our love affair for dairy is long-standing. Most Canadians believed sustainability, local production, natural characteristics and pureness are values embedded in the Blue Cow campaign we’ve seen for years.
The image that palm oil portrays just doesn’t wed well with what advertising campaigns say the industry is all about. Most Canadians would concur, starting with dairy farmers themselves.
For many Canadians, something didn’t feel right and that’s a problem for the industry, whether it agrees with the public outcry or not. Our social contract with the industry was compromised.
Many have said that buttergate is very much a First World problem. Perhaps, but buttergate wasn’t considered scandalous or controversial within the industry. It simply pointed to deep-rooted problems the industry has had for a very long time but hasn’t acknowledged.
It starts with the lack of transparency. For the most part, dairy regulates itself, which is why processors have little to say about the quality of ingredients they lawfully must buy.
Dairy research’s focus needs to change. Most of it has to do with increasing productivity and managing genetics on the farm. But this research needs to address the disconnect between animal science, how we feed animals, and how these practices impact the quality of dairy products and human health over time.
When it comes to dairy product quality, we fly in the dark in Canada. For whatever reason, not many people look at butter’s ingredients on store shelves. This has changed with buttergate. It has also forced the industry to look hard at its practices.
In more recent statements, the Dairy Farmers of Canada claimed the data suggests that the quantity of palmitic acid in milk fat meets the regulated standards. But the industry is launching an investigation to see if our butter actually measures up to its standards.
The industry shouldn’t have to investigate – it should already have the evidence.
Replacing palmitic acids in feed won’t be easy. Many scientists say there are few alternatives. But Canadian-made alternatives can be designed and marketed properly.
Other countries where palmitic acids are allowed are also considering changes to feed protocols. This could be an opportunity for Canadian dairy know-how to shine, offering dairy energy supplements to the world.
Not all Canadian dairy farmers are using palmitic supplements to feed their cows – we believe 35 to 40 per cent are. So why have some dairy farmers chosen not to use palmitic acids in their feed even though it’s been legal for at least a decade?
It’s important to set best practices for the industry or at least revisit them while considering our dairy industry as a social system. Whatever happens on the farm requires public acceptance. This is what buttergate is truly all about.
The industry will be stronger than ever after the issue is thoroughly investigated.
Canadians want the ethical and moral considerations of farmgate practices to be included in the investigation. And investigators shouldn’t just be like-minded stakeholders who are part of the vast and powerful inner circles of the industry. The investigation should be open. It shouldn’t just be about productivity.
The investigation should also look at imported dairy products. Perhaps reciprocity is necessary to protect our farmers, unless our sector considers a palm oil-free position a competitive advantage. Everything should be on the table.
Dairy farmers are good, responsible people. They were doing what they thought was right for them, for their herds and for the Canadian public.
Industry leaders, on the other hand, should have known that society has changed and the industry needs to adapt, like any industry.
Canadian supply management allows for changes in farming protocols without financially penalizing farmers. We should use this system wisely so it serves the Canadian population well.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.
*Cover photo by Sorin Gheorghita on Unsplash