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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In 1950, the federal regulations and taxes on margarine were repealed and soon many states followed suit.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 1965.

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…

.

Perh

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