If You Think All Butter is Kosher, You’re Whey out of Line

“Fair words butter no parsnips”. This out-of-use phrase, which the Oxford English Dictionary dates back to at least 1639, means that words without action are of no use.

Such sentiments – that words are often of no utility — could have aptly been applied to an article about the kosher status of butter in years long past.

Historically, butter was a product that was viewed as being kosher without any serious issues. Generally, all aspects concerning the ingredients and manufacturing process were considered to be acceptable.

Butter was generally produced by churning cream (the fat, or “butterfat”, content in milk) so that the butterfat flocculated (clumped together) to form butter. The byproduct of this process was buttermilk. No other additives were used. This rendered butter a relatively innocuous product from a kosher perspective, and until fairly recently, some kosher consumers purchased higher grades of butter even without any kosher certification.

In contemporary times, much has changed. While the basic chemistry of butter production remains the same, ingredient and processing techniques have given butter a new face for the kosher consumer and butter manufacturers.

Before understanding the kosher issues involved with butter, it’s necessary to first understand the fundamentals of butter production.

The primary raw material in butter-making is cream. Not all creams are equal, however, and from a kosher perspective, an important distinction exists between sweet cream and whey cream.

Sweet cream is the fat that is separated from milk. Whey cream, in contrast, is a byproduct of cheese production, and it is subject to many more complex kosher issues. Sweet cream gives rise to sweet cream butter and whey cream to whey cream butter.

Whether the raw material is sweet cream or whey cream, the process is roughly the same: the cream is pasteurized, or treated with heat to destroy harmful bacteria. After pasteurization, the cream is aged, which means that it is held at cool temperatures for a while, to crystallize the cream’s butterfat (which is in the form of globules); this butterfat will later form into actual butter. Next, the cream is churned, which means it is agitated so that its butterfat globules clump together into masses. These masses are butter, referred to in the butter industry as curd. The leftover portion of the cream — the part that does not form into butter — is known as buttermilk.

The butter is then washed, and salt and coloring may be added. The product is molded to a desired form and packaged.

In some butter productions, the cream is cultured before churning. Culturing involves adding dairy bacteria cultures to the cream to ferment its natural sugars into lactic acid, which creates an enhanced taste and aroma. (Although dairy cultures are normally made from kosher bacteria strands, they can be grown and nourished using non-kosher nutrients and can be processed on equipment shared with non-kosher materials of all types, including animal by-products.) Starter distillate, which is a dairy flavor compound made from milk or whey condensate, is also sometimes incorporated into butter to achieve a more tart or “buttery” taste.

The taste of whey cream butter is different than sweet cream butter. Because whey cream is a derivative of cheese, whey cream butter is more salty, tangy and “cheesy” than its milk-derived, sweet cream counterpart. Whey cream butter is the preferred type of butter for butter-flavored snacks and other various buttery-tasting products, as it has a stronger flavor than mild, sweet cream butter. Whey cream is also less expensive than sweet cream, and it is often used in flavored dairy products, such as in ice cream, whose flavors and additives mask the salty, tangy taste of whey cream.

Many butter plants process both sweet cream and whey cream butter, and many types of butter are made from blends of whey cream and sweet cream.

Even if a facility only processes sweet cream butter without any additives, there are no guarantees that the product is free of kosher concerns. Sweet cream butter is often made in dairy plants that also manufacture a large variety of products, such as chocolate milk, juice, eggnog and sour cream. In such cases, the equipment used to pasteurize cream for butter production is often used to pasteurize such other products in the plant, engendering the possibility that butter made in these facilities can become non-kosher from sharing equipment with anything non-kosher that is processed there. Furthermore, cream used in butter manufacture is frequently sourced from outside plants which pasteurize other possibly non-kosher materials on the same equipment used for pasteurization of cream. Thus, even if a butter facility makes only sweet cream butter and nothing else, it may have purchased cream from cheese plants or multi-functional dairies, whose sweet cream may have been pasteurized on equipment shared with who knows what else.

Some people used to believe that the grading system applicable to butter is indicative of whether the butter is acceptable from a kosher standpoint. They assumed that higher grade butter is made only from sweet cream and is more pure (i.e., free of additives). It is important to note, however, that butter grading does not require that certain types of cream be used to earn a specific grade. Thus, Grade AA butter may contain some whey cream, so long as it does not result in an acidic flavor or a rough mouth-feel which disqualifies it from an AA grade. Grade A butter may be made from a mixture of sweet cream and whey cream also, for the same reason. So, too, the grading system does not bar additives.

In Europe, EU dairy regulations bar sweet cream butter from containing whey cream. In fact, under EU regulations, sweet cream butter and whey cream butter cannot even be manufactured in the same plant. Although it may be easier to ascertain the cream content of butter manufactured in EU facilities, the kosher concerns of additives and shared production equipment are ever-present.

To sum up, modern butter manufacture involves several kosher considerations, including the potential presence of non-kosher whey cream, production equipment shared with non-kosher materials, and a variety of kosher-sensitive additives.

Based on this, we can pretty well understand the types of issues that need to be addressed by kosher agencies. Kosher certification of butter involves meticulous verification of all cream sources and butter additives, as well as the kosher status of all equipment. In fact, due to the compatibility of kosher and non-kosher cream, many major North American kosher certification agencies have agreed to not certify butter made in “mixed plants,” which handle kosher and non-kosher cream. It was determined that tracking the use of kosher and non-kosher cream and constantly kosherizing equipment in between was too risky. As a result of this joint policy, established at a large gathering of kosher certification professionals at OU headquarters in New York several years ago, there are virtually no kosher-certified mixed butter plants in North America today.

Butter is often marketed as an innocuous, old-fashioned pure cream product which all can readily enjoy (without worrying too much about kosher issues). As with most products today, butter has become highly complex, and it can thus no longer be stated regarding the kosher status of butter that, “Fair words butter no parsnips.”

OU Kosher Staff