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FoodAgrifood Brief: ‘Buttergate’ – could it spread to Europe?

Agrifood Brief: ‘Buttergate’ – could it spread to Europe?

The European Times News aims to cover news that matter to increase the awareness of citizens all around geographical Europe.
Welcome to EURACTIV’s AgriFood Brief, your weekly update on all things Agriculture & Food in the EU. You can subscribe here if you haven’t done so yet.
This week: EURACTIV takes a look at why butter is hitting the headlines in Canada and what implications this could have for the EU, and we talk about the upcoming ‘super-trilogue’ which has been called by the Portuguese Presidency this week in an attempt to finally wrap up CAP negotiations. 
Canadian consumers are complaining about the quality of the country’s butter. Is that something we need to be worried about too?
In the midst of the pandemic, Candian foodies started to realise that something was amiss with their butter.The product itself tasted the same. It’s just that it did not seem as soft as it once was. In particular, local butter had become so firm that it was hardly spreadable at room temperature.

At the beginning of February, the Canadian cookbook author Julie Van Rosendaal first pointed out the mystery of the ‘hard’ butter on Twitter. The debate then spread, turning into something national media dubbed as ‘buttergate’.

Some suggested that the higher demand for butter during the pandemic led to changes in livestock feed, as farmers sought to boost yield by modifying the fatty acid profile of bovine milk.

Like many other factors, fat intake can determine butter consistency, so the blame was put on the increased use of palm oil fat supplements in cattle feed.

Which is yet to be verified: Canada’s Dairy Processors Association (DPA) said there have been no changes to butter production, although they have since established an expert panel to look into the problem, asking producers to stop the practice in the meantime.

So, it’s as yet unclear whether ‘buttergate’ has scientific grounds or it’s only the fruit of media hype.

However, given the attention the scandal has received overseas, we decided to shed some light on the issue on this side of the Atlantic too.

If like me, you have trouble picturing the whole situation without thinking of cows eating Nutella – as the makers of the Italian spread have made no secret of using palm oil – I’ll have you know that feeding cattle with palm oil is a well-known practice, as the website of the French livestock farming institute shows.
The story is more about the feed ratios of a part of the Canadian dairy herd, as palm kernel extract (PKE) is also used in New Zealand dairy and in many Asian dairy sectors.

Contacted by EURACTIV, the  European Dairy Association (EDA) said that feeding by-products from palm oil production can be considered as part of a circular economy approach.

As long as the overall daily feed ration is balanced and targeted to the cows’ specific metabolism, this does not harm them, they added.

Of course, the daily feed ratio can have a certain influence on the milk and hence on the qualities/texture of a dairy product like butter.

That’s why the French cheese Comté has a slight difference in taste in winter compared to summer.

How could this ‘buttergate’ affect Europe?

The good news is that European consumers should not be worried about the quality of Canadian butter simply because the EU does not import any butter from Canada.

Literally, 0 tonnes. We checked that with a little help from EUROSTAT, the EU’s statistical office.

The reason why butter imports from Canada are virtually non-existent lies in a supply management system for milk aimed at self-sufficiency, as well as in a complicated subsidy regime that does not make the North American country a competitive supplier of dairy products.

As the secretary-general of the EU’s milk traders association Eucolait, Jukka Likitalo, explained, the subsidy scheme “milk class 7” allows Canada to export butter, skimmed milk powder (SMP) and whey powder below the cost of production, but there is no import demand for these products in Europe.

“Due to its consumption patterns, Canada has a structural surplus of dairy protein and a shortage of butter. I can imagine that the increased retail sales during the pandemic have made this worse,” he told EURACTIV.

Another aspect involves the possibility for Europe to take advantage of such a consumers’ mistrust in Canadian butter, as a shortage of this product is expected.

Canada is an important export market for the EU, especially for cheese which has been granted improved market access in the form of a zero duty quota under the CETA agreement.

Europe also exports small volumes of butter to Canada and there could be some limited additional opportunities there for European producers in case demand has indeed increased.

“At the same time, export growth will be constrained as the Canadian market is heavily protected by prohibitive tariffs and imports only make sense within import quotas conceded by Canada within the World Trade Organisation (WTO),” said Eurolait’s Likitalo.

Likewise, EDA doesn’t see a shortage of dairy products on the horizon in Canada, also considering that dairy exports to Canada are limited through the CETA agreement and the very unique way the Canadians manage their import quota system.

We can wrap this up like this: Canadian foodies have problems in spreading their butter, but these problems will not spread to Europe.

Agrifood news this week

Portuguese presidency calls ‘super trilogue’ to seek CAP breakthrough
Portugal’s agriculture minister Maria do Céu Antunes will by the end of March convene a joint negotiation meeting with all three rapporteurs in the European parliament to seek a breakthrough in Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) talks. Gerardo Fortuna has the story.

Hungary: Greens are ‘gunning’ for EU agricultural subsidies system
Hungary’s agriculture ministry has launched a scathing attack on the Greens/EFA political group after the publication of a damning report detailing the misuse of EU farming subsidy money in the country.  Natasha Foote has more.

Beyond Farm to Fork: the ‘agricultural’ side of EU’s biodiversity strategy
The European Union’s bid to tackle biodiversity loss goes hand in hand with the new ambition of making the food system more sustainable, involving several farming aspects. Gerardo Fortuna has more.

French lawmakers denounce EFSA’s ‘toxic’ pesticides assessments
More than a hundred French lawmakers have joined forces to denounce the EU’s evaluation of pesticides and demand that the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) step up its assessments in line with EU regulation, a criticism that the agency rejects. Read more.

UK fishing sector sees more job losses due to post-Brexit export troubles
Britain could lose more jobs in its fishing sector if the current delays and increased costs involved in exporting to the EU post-Brexit are not ironed out soon, industry groups told British government officials on Tuesday (2 March). Learn more.

News from the bubble

CAP corner:  The main issues discussed during the sixth trilogue on the CAP strategic plans regulation included the definition of what constitutes an active farmer. EU sources told EURACTIV that many member states insisted on keeping the definition voluntary, new farmers and payment for small farmers.

The Austrian delegation also presented a proposal on the sticky issue of social conditionality, which was initially supported by many countries, including Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, but more countries referred positively to it during the meeting. The proposal includes two steps: enhance the role of Farm Advisory Services and evaluate the results of this enhancement after a certain period of time (i.e. three years) in the view of deciding whether further action would be needed.

While many delegations reiterated previous assertions that this is outside the remit of the CAP, a few member states questioned the level of ambition of the Austrian proposal and expressed their openness in exploring other options (e.g. social conditionality conditional on court rulings).

In other news, according to a new study released by the Commission this week, the information policy on the CAP has been successful in improving understanding and perceptions of the policy. Based on figures from Eurobarometer and results of a stakeholder survey conducted as part of the study, awareness of the CAP was found to have increased over the last five years, and perceptions of its performance have improved.

Cancer plan does not meat expectations: In a parliamentary question, Green MEP Francisco Guerreiro asked the Commission why they rephrased the final version of the EU’s beating cancer plan, softening the stance on meat. A previous draft of the plan, obtained by EURACTIV, read that the EU promotion policy for agricultural products would be reviewed “in view of phasing out promotion of foods linked with cancer risks, such as red and processed meat,” but this reference to meat has been attenuated in the final text.

Food waste:  The United Nations Environment Programme released its 2021 food waste index report this week, which found that around 931 million tonnes of food waste were generated in 2019, 61% of which came from households, 26% from foodservice and 13% from retail. This suggests that 17% of total global food production may be wasted.

Geographical indications: The agreement on protected geographical indications (PGI) between China and the EU to certify the origin of products entered into force on Monday, March 1, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce announced. According to EURACTIV’s partner Ouest-France, The text lists 100 European food products and as many Chinese products that will be protected from imitation.

Meanwhile, the European Commission has approved the application for the inclusion of “Escavèche de Chimay” from Belgium in the register of protected geographical indications (PGI). The ‘Escavèche de Chimay’ is a cold preparation of cooked fish coated in a jellied, vinegar sauce containing onions.

Migrant workers: The European Parliament released a briefing last month on the situation of migrant seasonal agricultural workers which provides an overview of the perspective of the EU institutions.

Sour taste: Italy buys itself some time in the balsamic vinegar dispute with Slovenia. Rome has filed a last-minute opinion to reset the clock in the procedure which gives the Commission three more months to further examine the matter. Slovenia notified the EU executive in early December of some national draft rules which ensures that any hashing of wine vinegar can be sold as balsamic vinegar. The Slovenian technical standard was challenged by Italy, which considers balsamic vinegar as a national food specialty. See more here.

Agrifood news from the Capitals

The yearly price negotiations between the French food producing industry and large retailers has officially come to an end on Monday (1 March). After three months of tense discussions, both sides remain unsatisfied with the outcome. Farmers and the food producing industry denounce an ongoing “price war”, accusing retailers of failing to take into account the rising costs for raw materials. The French minister for agriculture and food, Julien Denormandie, has multiplied his messages in support of the agricultural sector in recent weeks. “Agriculture should not be the variable of adjustment”, he said. For him, keeping a clamp on the prices paid to farmers, “first in line since the very first day of the sanitary crisis”, constitutes a very real risk to the sovereignty of the French food sector. EURACTIV France has more. (Magdalena Pistorius | EURACTIV.fr)

In one of his first public speeches, the newly appointed ‘super minister’ for the ecological transition, Roberto Cingolani, declared that the amount of animal protein consumed should be decreased and replaced with plant-based alternatives. He pointed out that animal protein requires six times as much water to produce the same amount of vegetable protein, while intensive livestock production accounts for 20% of global CO2 emissions. “By changing our diet, we will have a co-benefit: improving public health, decreasing water use and producing less CO2,” he concluded. Cingolani’s words triggered harsh criticism from meat producers, who considered his statement an “abnormal overestimation of climate-changing gas emissions from intensive meat production.” Meat producers also highlighted that Italy is among the lowest-ranked European countries for meat consumption. (EURACTIV.com)

Romanian farmers stand to miss out on the aid they were promised after they suffered from a severe drought last year. While farmers received government aid for their autumn-sown crops, the agriculture minister promised to also help farmers affected by the continuation of drought in the spring. But the aid, estimated at more than 1 billion lei (over €200 million), has been delayed and was not included at all in the 2021 budget. Prime minister Florin Citu denied the need to include additional money in the budget, saying the government already paid 1.1 billion lei for drought-induced damages in 2020. For his part, the agriculture minister Adrian Oros downplayed the situation, saying he will work with farmers’ associations to find other ways to compensate the losses. The minister added the damages paid last year were not included in the budget bill at the time, but that agriculture got more funds at budget revisions and that he counts on a similar development in 2021 as well. (Bogdan Neagu | EURACTIV.ro)

This week saw the launch of the Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC) report to the UK government on how best to advance the interests of UK farmers, food producers and consumers in future trade agreements in the wake of Brexit. National Farmers Union (NFU) President Minette Batters welcomed the report, saying that it helps to “properly examine, and to try to reconcile, the complexities and tensions inherent in government trade policy – one that seeks both to liberalise trade and to safeguard our high food and farming standards and our valued British farming sector.” (Natasha Foote | EURACTIV.com)

GERMANY On Monday (1 March), Germany’s agriculture minister Julia Klöckner (CDU) presented her ministry’s plans for the CAP, which will give more support to smaller farmers and increase support for organic food. The proposals are set to go into effect in 2023, but they still have to be passed by the German government. “It is clear to everyone that there must be changes: We have jointly decided at the European level to promote smaller farms, young farmers as well as more environmental services,” Klöckner said. The agriculture ministry’s (BMEL) proposal has received mixed reviews. While the German Farmers’ Association (DBV) was generally supportive of eco-schemes and voluntary environmental measures, they warned that the changes to the direct payments “weakens farms and creates additional proof bureaucracies.”  Larger farmers’ associations in Eastern Germany are also critical of the new focus on smaller farms, saying it will have negative impacts on the farmers in the region, an area where large has largely been bought up by larger industrial farms in the past three decades since reunification. (Sarah Lawton |EURACTIV.de)

Ukrainian authorities intend to incorporate EU animal welfare regulations into their law for each of the areas that the EU recognizes: during animal husbandry, transport and slaughter, reports the Polish National Chamber of poultry and feed producers (KIPDIP). KIPDIP is systematically monitoring Ukraine’s efforts to establish equivalent conditions with EU standards for animal production. There have previously been reports of work on laws bringing Ukrainian production closer to that of the EU, including food safety, veterinary and hygiene standards in the production chain. The new act will apply to all animal species, with additional requirements established for poultry. The new standards refer to the minimum area available for animals, feeding issues, lighting, noise, etc. Representatives of the Ukrainian Ministry commented that the upcoming changes are another step on the road to European integration. (Mateusz Kucharczyk | EURACTIV.pl)

The Spanish agri-food sector increased exports by 2.7% during the COVID crisis in 2020, according to a recent report on trade and the situation of the agri-food and fishing sector. Exports from the agri-food, fishing and forestry sector reached €40,997 million in the period between April and December 2020 (since the beginning of the pandemic) compared to €39,905 million in the same previous period.  This increase contrasts with the export data for all sectors of the economy in the same period, which were €192,727 million and -11.8 % in relation to the previous year, according to a statement from the Ministry of agriculture, fisheries and food (MAPA). EURACTIV’s partner EFE Agro reports.

9-11 March – CropLife Europe (formerly known as ECPA) will hold its first 2021 conference on sustainable solutions to protect crops. See here for more details.

10 March – There is an event on ambitions for EU agrifood trade, featuring the Executive Vice-President of the European Commission, Valdis Dombrovskis, the EU Agricultural Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski, and Maria do Céu Antunes, the Portuguese agriculture minister and chair of AGRI-FISH Council.  More details can be found here.

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