Just last week, Milwaukee affiliate CBS 58 documented Republican Rep. Dale Kooyenga’s
efforts to rid Wisconsin of what most agree to be a bizarre set of
provisions in the Wisconsin Statute that curtail the use of margarine.
In Chapter 97 of the Wisconsin State Statute on Food Regulation, Section 18 outlines “Oleomargarine Regulations” that include:
(4) The serving of colored oleomargarine
or margarine at a public eating place as a substitute for table butter
is prohibited unless it is ordered by the customer.
(5) The serving of oleomargarine or margarine to
students, patients or inmates of any state institutions as a substitute
for table butter is prohibited, except that such substitution may be
ordered by the institution superintendent when necessary for the health
of a specific patient or inmate, if directed by the physician in charge
of the patient or inmate.
(6) Any person who violates any provision of this
section may be fined not less than $100 nor more than $500 or imprisoned
not more than 3 months or both; and for each subsequent offense may be
fined not less than $500 nor more than $1,000 or imprisoned in the
county jail not less than 6 months nor more than one year.
Quoted in a CBS 58 segment aptly called “You’ve Got To Be Kidding
Me,” Kooyenga told reporter Diane Moca “if you want your laws to mean
something and be respected, don’t have silly laws like this.”
So where did these margarine laws come from?
As the “Dairy State,” Wisconsin’s dairy lobby has always been
extremely powerful in state government. With the invention of margarine
in 1869, and patented in the United States in 1873, the Wisconsin dairy
lobby went to work to push both federal and state legislation in 1886
that introduced color restrictions, taxes, and even forced certain
establishments like hotels and restaurants to post signs if margarine
was sold on its premises.
As the Great Depression hit the United States and Wisconsin, the use
of margarine increased due to its lower cost. In 1931, Wisconsin dairy
farmers demonstrated in Madison and initiated greater protections for
dairy and butter manufacturers. Among these included more fees,
licences, sales taxes, and a color-ban on margarine.
In 1950, the federal regulations and taxes on margarine were repealed and soon many states followed suit.
But Wisconsin stayed stalwart and an era of smuggling and bootlegging
of margarine ensued as Wisconsinites drove to Illinois to purchase the
forbidden spread. According to Gerry Strey of the Wisconsin Magazine of History, “under Wisconsin law, colored margarine could not be sold in Wisconsin, and it was illegal to use it.”
When Minnesota repealed its ban on colored margarine in 1963, it set
the stage for a memorable fight to repeal a decades-old law culminating
in blindfolded taste tests by members of the Wisconsin legislature in
In 1967, the legislature passed a bill that eliminated the color-ban
on margarine but retained a special tax that did not lapse until 1973.
As Strey points out:
The remaining margarine laws have had little effect on
the consumption of butter or margarine and are like fragments found at
an archaeological site representing an almost mythical past…
aps before more laws are put on the books, legislators ought to
work to remove laws like the anti-margarine provisions that are petty,
wasteful, and make a mockery of the rule of law.
By Collin Roth