Hard [butter] times in Canada: What Buttergate Reveals about Environmental and Food History

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This essay by Kendra Smith-Howard is cross-posted between NiCHE and The Short Rows blog of the Agricultural History Society.

In February, Canadian food writer Julie Van Rosendaal tweeted: “something is up with our butter supply…have you noticed it’s no longer soft at room temperature?” Many Canadians had noticed. With the tweet, the Canadian bakers once suffering in isolation from hard-to-smear butter found themselves united in behind a quest to resolve a pressing national issue: what was up with Canadian butter?

Over the past few weeks, hard butter has sparked a hard look at, and from, the Canadian dairy industry. Dairy scientists have launched investigations to determine whether butter really is firmer than the norm, and others are evaluating the role of animal feeds on butter’s material form. This blog provides no evidence to settle the question of whether Canadian butter is more resistant to melting or why that is so.

Rather it presents two historically-informed angles on the Canadian butter controversy. First, buttergate reveals massive shifts in the role of tropical oils in butter politics. Second, its emergence demonstrates the continued significance of the senses in how consumers come to know and understand foods in contemporary times. Before buttergate melts away, it is worth placing in historical perspective.

Tropical Oils & Butter Politics

As journalist Julie Van Rosendaal sought to address the mystery of Canada’s firmer butter, she hypothesized that “hard butter” could be traced to broader transformations in the butter supply chain, and especially to palm oil as a dairy feed supplement. Oil-meals – from cottonseeds, corn, coconut, and even palm – have been used by dairy farmers for over a century.[1] Since 2001, more Canadian farmers have turned to feed supplements derived from palm oil. During the pandemic, Canadian dairies became especially reliant on feed mixtures to boost production. Early last spring, many farms culled cows due to plunging demand for milk, only to find an increased demand for butter as pandemic-inspired home baking took off. Changing cows’ feed was a way to supply butter manufacturers until herd sizes rebounded.

As feed supplements boost milk yields, they affect the composition, colour, and material properties of milk – and by extension, the butter manufactured from it. Butter’s yellow colour, for instance, derives from the chlorophyll-rich grasses and clover on which they graze in summer. Palm fats, especially those derived from palm-seeds have a greater concentration of saturated fatty acids, especially the fatty acid chain palmitic acid. Theoretically, van Rosendaal reasoned, since palmitic acid has a higher melting point than other fats, cows fed diets with higher proportion of palm-derived feed supplements could account for the hardened butter on Canadian counters.

That palm oil feed supplements emerged as a scapegoat for texture problems in butter was in some ways not surprising given events of the past decade. The product’s ubiquitous role in dairy feed, candy, foods, biofuels, and cosmetics has unleashed troubling environmental impacts in the tropical sites from which it derives. Palm oil corporations have relentlessly logged the peatland forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, clearing the lands to establish palm-oil plantations, releasing carbon and destroying the habitats of countless creatures. Van Rosendaal was certainly not alone in scrutinizing palm oils.

As the buttergate scandal broke, the Dairy Farmers of Canada argued that palm oil supplements benefit cows’ health without any apparent effects on human health, while the Quebec Dairy Producers asked its members to refrain from using palm oil while scientists investigated their effects. Historically, tropical oils like palm and coconut oil have more frequently been identified as a major hindrance than a major help to the dairy industry, because in the 1910s-1940s, they were the main ingredients of margarine. That any sector within the dairy industry came to the defense of palm oil derivatives marks a radical departure.

In the 1870s, when Canadian and United States’ dairy farmers first encountered margarine, they characterized it as a poor-quality ersatz imitator, and objected when grocers and restauranteurs sold and served it in lieu of butter.[2] In 1886, both Canadian and American lawmakers passed protective legislation to restrict its sale. In Canada, their efforts resulted in a ban in manufacture or sales of the product from 1886-1949 (with a brief respite during World War I). The U.S. Congress imposed a federal tax on coloured margarine and licensing fees on margarine manufacturers.[3]

By the 1910s, new processes to hydrogenate oils meant that vegetable oils, rather than beef scraps, became the primary ingredient of margarine. Peanut oil and cottonseed oil were often used, but by the 1920s and 1930s American margarine producers turned increasingly to coconut oil and palm oil. The U.S. colony of the Philippines, whose products reached American shores without import tariffs, produced many of these oils. By the late 1920s, margarine manufacturers turned to unbleached palm oil because its golden hues gave margarine a yellowish tint, a welcome property since its use permitted them to avoid paying the elevated taxes of artificially-coloured margarine.[4]

Hesitancy about the role of tropical oils in the dairy supply chain have a long history, but in the 1910s through the 1930s, American dairy manufacturers resisted and pilloried the oils’ role in margarine through the figure of the “cocoanut cow.” The Cocoanut Cow, 1930. Hoard’s Dairyman. Reprinted in Pawnee Courier-Dispatch, January 9, 1930. Reproduced with permission of Hoard’s Dairyman.

Thus, while it had long spurred dairy farmers’ opposition, margarine made from tropical oils especially rankled the industry. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, dairy farmers suffered from low milk prices as copra and palm oil imports soared. In this context, dairy farm organizations identified the “cocoanut cow” as a major threat to the industry.[5] The term “cocoanut cow” peppered debates as Congressmen determined whether “filled milk” (skim milk with butterfat removed and coconut oil added) should be permitted for sale.

As they called for tariffs to protect their industry, dairying organizations turned to racially disparaging terms to describe the origins of margarine. One Indiana farmer even went so far as to describe margarine as “monkey butter.”[6] Other dairying experts described the “lazy” “dusky” “coolie laborers” that waited for coconuts to fall, and contrasted them with the industrious, home-grown dairy industry dominated by hardy European stock.[7]  

The racism and disdain for tropical oils largely took place south of the Canadian border, for American farmers faced a greater threat from palm and coconut-oil competitors than Canadians protected by the margarine ban. When the ban on sales of margarine lifted during World War I, however, Canadian consumers imbibed in imported butters, including Nucoa, a brand for which 75% of the fats derived from coconut oil.[8] Moreover, the notion that the future of the race rested on dairy fat found purchase among Canadians. In 1920, the Ontario Agricultural College’s H.H. Dean proclaimed Canada in “the need of good butter in fairly large quantities, in order to develop and maintain an aggressive, prepotent race of people in the Empire-Province of Canada.”[9] And the cultural construction of the coconut cow had transnational appeal; in 1922, when British Columbian leaders ruled against a filled milk plant, a headline from Vancouver’s The Province insisted on keeping the “cocoanut cow on her side of the fence.”[10]

The centrality of palm and coconut oil to margarine politics waned after World War II. In Canada, the reinstatement of the margarine ban kept the threat at bay. By the 1950s, when Canadians lifted the national margarine ban, soybean and rapeseed oil constituted the product’s main ingredients.[11] In the United States, World War II, combined with the subsequent independence of the Philippines, crippled the “cocoanut cow,” but gave new life to margarine churned from soybean and other vegetable oils. Margarine still raised dairy farmers’ hackles, but not because of its tropical origins.[12]

Few observers of buttergate likely registered the strange cognitive dissonance of hearing dairy farmers defend palm oil. This position, however, marks a sharp contrast from their position 100 years ago. Whereas dairy organizations of the 1920s and 1930s waged an all-out fight against palm oils and the “cocoanut cow,” present dairy farmers’ willingness to tolerate a tropic-Canada bovine makes for a new breed of margarine politics.

Object lessons

If the role of palm oil in buttergate provides a departure from past practice, it simultaneously displays the enduring power of the senses in evaluating butter quality. Sensory experiences set off the alarm of Canadian foodies and bakers. Butter felt different. Rather than spreading effortlessly on toast, butter crumbled and tore. Placed on the counter to soften for transformation into shortbread or pound-cakes, it retained its blocky shape.

Butter triers were tools that inspectors used to take a sample of butter from a wholesale butter tub. Lucius L. VanSlyke, Modern Methods of Testing Milk and Milk Products New York: Orange Judd Publishing Co., 1916. In the public domain.

These contemporary consumers weren’t the first to judge butter based on its physical attributes. In the late nineteenth century, scorecards to improve butter quality rigorously examined how it smelled, tasted, and smeared. After arriving in tubs to wholesalers, inspectors examined butter to determine quality and set price. In a typical inspection, the buyer inserted a butter trier into the tub, and pulled out a plug of butter. Scorers smelled the butter for its aroma, tasted its flavor, and cut it under a knife to examine butter’s body for any signs of “leakiness, crumbliness, stickiness, and weak body.” Although laboratory analysis of butter fat and water content developed alongside these sensory measures, flavour, aroma, body, and texture – as evaluated by the butter inspector – mattered a great deal. Butter expert Otto Hunziker urged fellow inspectors to take them seriously. “The flavor and aroma of butter are of delicate nature, their correct impression on the senses demands subtle and delicate handling.”[13] Such examinations were all the more important since, until the 1920s, most consumers purchased butter in bulk with the assistance of a grocer, not in individually wrapped packages. It was the grading by the inspector, not the label, that undergirded whether butter was good.

Many who purchased butter in the interwar period in the 1910s did so in bulk, and relied upon butter inspectors’ grades of butter, rather than information on the label to ascertain its qualities. Then, as today, sensory inspections of color, taste, and texture proved critical to judging its quality. Edward Sewall Guthrie, The Book of Butter: a Text on the Nature, Manufacture, and Marketing of the Product (New York: Mcmillan, 1918), 209.

Over the course of the twentieth century, however, consumers became increasingly encouraged to know foods by their labels, rather than through sensory examinations. Consumers learned to trust labels after pure foods laws helped ensure their integrity; such laws targeted mislabeled goods (especially margarine sold as butter).[14] By the 1930s, savvy consumers insisted that accurate weights be present on the label, and in the 1950s and 1960s, urged manufactures to provide ingredient lists and nutritional information.[15] What historian Xaq Frohlich has termed the “informational turn” in food labelling encouraged consumers to know food by reading about it.[16] Consumers took on the responsibility of weighing risks and monitoring individual food choices by evaluating a lexicon of vitamin content and ingredient lists. Buttergate shows the limitations of this informational system. For it wasn’t a new ingredient detected on the label, or a new perception of the health risks of butter that registered that something was off about butter. Rather, consumers’ senses and engagement with the product through their work tipped them off. Butter didn’t spread or whip or sauté as anticipated. These embodied sensory experiences piqued consumers’ curiosity. They learned more about the supply chain and farms and palm plantations from which it came. For environmental historians, this pathway of knowledge resonates. Buttergate is perhaps an unlikely vehicle for understanding, but it demonstrates the power of the material to generate questions, spur investigation, and perhaps, spark choices for our future that leave less of a lingering bitter taste behind.

[1] For palm oil, specifically, see “British Dairy Notes,” Hoard’s Dairyman, volume 52, (Sept 1, 1916), 175.
[2] Benjamin Cohen, Pure Adulteration: Cheating on( Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2011), 75-110; W.H. Heick, A Propensity to Protect: Butter, Margarine, and the Rise of Urban Culture in Canada. (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1991), 6-21; James Harvey Young, Pure Food: Securing the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 66-94.
[3] Ruth Dupre, “If It’s Yellow, it Must be Butter,”: Margarine Regulation in North America Since 1886,” Journal of Economic History 59 (March 2009): 353-371.
[4] Kendra Smith-Howard, Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History since 1900 (New York: Oxford, 2013), 60-66.
[5] “The Cocoanut Cow is a Serious Menace to the Dairy Industry,” Simpson County News, April 10, 1930.
[6] “Monkey Butter Chiseling Markets” Tri-County Banner, January 19, 1934.
[7] Report of the National Dairy Marketing Conference (Chicago: American Farm Bureau Federation, 1921), 94; J.S. Abbott, “False Advertising Propaganda Against Oleomargarine,” Proceedings of the Fourth Annual Convention of the Institute of Margarin Manufacturers, 1923 (Washington, DC: Institute of Margarin Manufacturers, 1923), 54-72; “Speaking of Butter,” Hastings Democrat, February 20, 1930.
[8] Heick, Propensity to Protect, 126.
[9] H.H. Dean, “Relation of Cooperative Buttermaking to the Province of Ontario,” Annual Report  – Dairyman’s Association of the Province of Ontario, 1919 (A.T. Wilgress, Toronto, 1920), 34.
[10] “Cocoanut Cow Kept on her Own Side of the Fence,” the Province, July 15, 1922.
[11] Heick, Propensity to Protect, 129.
[12] Smith-Howard, Pure and Modern Milk, 60-66.
[13] Otto Hunziker, The Butter Industry. (LaGrange, Ill., Hunziker, 1920)
[14] Young, Pure Food; Cohen, Pure Adulteration.
[15] Anna Zeide, Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry  (Oakland: University of California, 2015), 103-134; Angie Boyce, “When does it Stop being Peanut Butter?: FDA Food Standards of Identity, Ruth Desmond, and the Shifting Politics of Consumer Activism, 1960s-1970s,” Technology and Culture 57 (2016): 54-79.
[16] Xaq Frohlich, “The Informational Turn in Food Politics: The US FDA’s Nutrition Label as Information Infrastructure,” Social Studies of Science 47 (2017): 145-171.

Feature image: the wrapping and slicing machine in the butter department of the Loblaw Groceteria warehouse, Toronto, Ontario, 1945. Box number: 3/X3, Item no. 11459, Library and Archives Canada

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Kendra Smith-Howard

is associate professor of history at University at Albany (State University of New York), where she writes and teaches about the intersections of histories of the environment, agriculture, health, and consumer culture. Her 2013 book Pure and Modern Milk explores the twentieth-century history of dairy foods and the farms from which they came. Her current research examines the shifting environmental footprint of cleaning technologies, and the social and cultural patterns shaping the labor of cleaning up. While she sometimes tops toast with avocado, she remains convinced that butter is the best dairy food.

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