Consumers in some parts of the country were recently confronted with warning signs that there may be a butter shortage. Any shortage warning usually comes as a shock to most city folks as they expect their local grocery store shelves to be overloaded with most any food product. All they know is that food magically appears every day at grocery stores – so what`s the problem. In this case it appears that butter has become a victim of its own success as a safe, healthful and nutritious natural food.
For years now in the face of a stagnant market, dairy producers, processors, marketers and retailers in North America have spent millions advertising various dairy products. It’s been a tough sell as products like butter and cheese were vilified by alleged health experts and consumer lobby groups as horrible fats that could endanger your health and life. Numerous dubious studies were fabricated to show that dairy fats were evil, whilst vegetable fats were much safer. That saw demand for butterfat decrease and the production end of the industry tried to adjust. To offset the trend, the overall dairy industry cranked up the advertising of dairy products like butter and cheese.
But there is more to the story – as happens once in a while, some major media outlet decides to investigate the validity of some reports that condemn one food product or another. And surprise, surprise, they find many reports particularly from vegetarian advocacy groups as completely false and misleading. A few months back Time Magazine reported on butter and found that contrary to misleading lobby group advocacy, butter was a safe, natural and nutritious product and implied it was better than manufactured margarine products. As a result, butter consumption increased. It’s not the whole story of course, but it sure helped increase demand.
The problem with increased butterfat demand is that the supply can’t be turned up overnight. To get more butterfat – the milk supply has to be increased – that’s a process that can be done in moderation over time. In the short term, feeding dairy cows more supplements like soya meal can cause them to produce more butterfat in their milk. But there is a catch, most dairy cattle are of the Holstein- Frisian breed that have been bred to produce less butterfat than other dairy breeds like Jersey or Guernsey. That situation was due to the past 50-year trend that saw less demand for butterfat and more demand for low fat milk like 2 per cent or skim milk. In fact, it was the butterfat skimmed off whole milk that was sufficient to supply demand for such products as butter and ice cream. Typically processors would also store excess butterfat production in the summer to be used when more butter was required in other periods like around the holidays. Timing is always an issue as the industry does not want to be seen disposing of excess skimmed milk as a waste product.
Interestingly, there were times when producers were penalized for producing too much fat in their raw milk. Producers over the years responded to that marketing reality by using low fat producing Holstein-Friesian cows. Highly-selective genetics has also seen that breed steadily decreasing the butterfat component of its milk. It now seems that selection process may not have been the most insightful approach. A similar result happened with beef production, where lean meat cattle genetics were promoted for years, that resulted in a shortage of highly fat marbled beef that the restaurant market actually wanted to buy.
Another changing dairy market reality is the shift in demographics in Canada. There is a fast growing segment of the population that demands high-fat dairy products for their specific ethnic cuisine. The Hindu-Sikh population uses high-fat milk as the protein basis to their largely vegetarian diet. A typical family regularly consumes as much as 10 gallons of milk and dairy products per week. The problem for milk processors and marketers is that community demands full-fat milk and almost none of that butterfat can be skimmed off for butter and cheese production.
The butterfat shortage will eventually resolve itself as the dairy production and processing segment of the industry adjusts its practices. It’s another one of those classic cases of be careful what you wish for – in this case the dairy industry spent millions trying to increase milk products consumption and now can’t supply the demand they helped create. Notwithstanding what has happened, it’s still a good marketing situation to be in for the dairy industry.