Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Margarine Wars

Being the margarine enthusiast that I am, I found this article rather amusing...

Imagine, if you will, a world where oleo-margarine is banned. Where only real butter is available and people have to smuggle the substitute substance across the border, avoiding border patrols, and taking back roads in the dead of night.

Is it some sort of Orwellian nightmare? Life in some oppressed communist satellite state? No, this was life in Wisconsin until the late 1960s, albeit with some fictional flourishes. These were the oleo wars and as silly as it may seem today, people then fought margarine as seriously as many fight genetically engineered food today.

Oleo-margarine was invented in 1869 by French scientist Hippolyte M├ęge-Mouries. He developed a way to extract an oil from beef fat. He combined this oil with milk, water, and a yellow dye to create a edible substance that resembled butter but was cheaper and stored better than the real thing.

His process was granted a U.S. patent in 1873 and by 1886 there were 37 plants in the United States manufacturing oleo-margarine. Fears soon developed that this product would be fraudulently substituted for real butter.

By 1886, the dairy lobby succeeded in having legislature passed that instituted labeling and packaging restrictions. Taxes were also imposed on margarine manufacturers. Wisconsin went a step further and in 1895 passed laws requiring hotels and restaurants to have clearly posted signs indicating that margarine was sold there.

They went even further by prohibiting the sale and manufacture of colored margarine (margarine was naturally white).

Despite these restrictions, the manufacture of margarine continued to increase and the dairy industry asked for more restrictions. The Grout Bill passed in 1902, which stated that margarine shipped between states was subject to the laws of the state it was being shipped to and that butter colored margarine was subject to a 10 cent per pound manufacturing tax while uncolored was only taxed 1/4 cent per pound.

It was the Great Depression and then World War II that gave oleo-margarine its greatest boosts. The Depression increased sales for the cheaper product and Wisconsin reacted by enacting license fees on margarine manufacturers and increasing the tax on the uncolored margarine to six cents per pound, while colored margarine was banned outright.

WWII, with it's food rationing, introduced margarine to many who had resisted it until then and after the war, as margarine's popularity gained, the government was forced to reconsider it's margarine legislation. In 1950, the federal law taxing colored margarine was repealed. Slowly, over the next decade, states that had instituted their own laws against margarine repealed them until only Wisconsin remained, refusing to change its laws.

In 1957, margarine consumption surpassed butter consumption, yet while others enjoyed their colored margarine and toast, in Wisconsin it was still illegal to use it and Wisconsinites were forced to color their own margarine or cross state lines to buy it. The 15 cent tax on uncolored margarine back in the 1950s was a huge extra expense that many families couldn't bare.

After much debate, including a blind taste test that embarrassed several of the pro-butter contingency, a law was passed on July 1, 1967 making colored margarine legal in Wisconsin for the first time since 1895. The product however, was still taxed until 1973.

Today, only a few laws regarding margarine still remain in Wisconsin, such as butter substitutes are not allowed to be served in state prisons and margarine may not be substituted for butter in restaurants unless requested by the customer

No comments: