Serving Margarine is Still Illegal in Wisconsin

I don’t make any secret of my disdain for margarine. I find that it tastes like exactly what it is; processed yellow-colored hydrogenated vegetable oil. I never bought into the bogus health claims made by its purveyors and current food and nutrition science doesn’t either.

I’ve always wondered; if margarine is so great, why do the marketers of the stuff insist on names like “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter?” Why do they tout how “buttery tasting” their product is? Never once have I heard a butter maker proclaim, “Wow! It tastes just like margarine!” Even the URL for the National Association of Margarine Manufacturers proclaims the popularity of real butter – Hey, what’s wrong with “,” huh? For my money, if I want something that tastes like butter, I buy butter!

Margarine is nothing but a cheap substitute for the real thing. And I don’t believe in cheap substitutes. I once saw a Volkswagen Beetle with a kit-built Rolls-Royce front end bolted on. That’s margarine. You can dress it up, but it’s still a Volkswagen.

Margarine has been a cheap imitation from Day 1. That’s it’s purpose, it’s raison d’etre . The 19 th century French government needed a cheap substitute for butter to foist off on its troops. A French chemist named Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès invented a substance he called oleomargarine and the rest is history .

Needless to say, the dairy industry was not happy with the new kid on the block. It wasn’t long before farmers in dairying states were up in arms, demanding that something be done about margarine for the sake of preserving the health and well being of their market and of their very way of life. Ultimately, by 1902, thirty-two of America’s forty-five states had some form of restriction on colored margarine. And, of course, Wisconsin lawmakers were at the head of the charge. In 1895, “America’s Dairyland” enacted stringent laws prohibiting the manufacture, sale, or use of margarine colored to imitate butter.

In its unadulterated form, margarine is a pasty white color. Just imagine spreading a nice thick, greasy layer of Crisco on your toast. Margarine makers, realizing that such an unappealing appearance was a real marketing drawback, began selling yellow food dye capsules with their unattractive product to make it more…well…attractive. (At one point, an attempt was made to force margarine manufacturers to color their product pink, but the Supreme Court struck down such forced coloration restrictions.) By and large, the gimmick worked and people started buying the second-rate substitute not because it was better than butter but because it was cheap. In those days nobody knew anything about saturated fats and trans fats and cholesterol. And as long as the stuff sorta looked like butter, well, you could almost get over the unnatural artificial flavor. Factor in the widespread dairy product rationing that accompanied a couple of subsequent world wars, and, despite heavy taxation and restrictive legislation in the dairy states, the demand for margarine took off. Kind of like Prohibition; the best way to popularize a substance is to make it illegal.

In fact, now that the statute of limitations has probably expired, I can come clean and admit it; back in the ’50s, my dad was a bootlegger. We lived just a few miles north of the Illinois border. Margarine was legal in the Land of Lincoln and my dad used to take orders from friends and neighbors throughout the week and then head south on Saturday to fill up the trunk of his car with contraband, bringing it back to Wisconsin for clandestine distribution. Oh, the shame!

But those days are all behind us now, right? Even as liquor began to flow after the 18 th Amendment was repealed in 1933, legal margarine has spread itself across the land and is now free for all to consume without legislative restriction, right? Wrong.

That’s right. Wrong. While some statutes in previously anti-margarine states have been quietly removed from the books over the years, some laws in some states remain in effect. Granted, they’re not enforced, but they’re still there.

Spurred on by the aforementioned National Association of Margarine Manufacturers and other lobbyists, laws regulating the sale and use of margarine came under serious fire in the 1950s and ’60s. Federal taxes on margarine were eliminated in 1951. State color bans, taxes, and other legal measures began to fall to well-funded pressure until, in 1967, Wisconsin became the last state to end its restrictions on margarine. Happy days were here again and people like my dad were out of business.


Wisconsinites are a determined lot and they didn’t completely cave in to the interests pushing fake butter. While all the old laws regulating butter were repealed in ’67, a new one was added. That law, targeted at the food service industry, made it illegal for restaurants to serve margarine as a replacement for butter. Customers can request margarine, but it can’t legally be the default table offering. And if a restaurant insists on serving margarine, the law insists that it make butter an available option. The law also requires that butter be served to students in schools, patients in hospitals, and inmates in prisons. Anybody who violates margarine laws faces fines ranging from $100 to $500 and they can be jailed for up to three months for the first offense. Fines and jail time increase for additional violations, with recidivist margarine offenders subject to fines of $500 to $1,000 and six months to a year in the pokey.

Nobody can remember the last time the law was enforced, if it ever has been. One or two complaints trickle in to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture every year. And the authorities dutifully send out warning letters. And that’s about it. Most consumers don’t even know the law exists and most restaurant owners, if aware if the law, don’t care. And they don’t care for a very good reason: most of their customers don’t want margarine. One Wisconsin restaurateur says he goes through five or six times as much butter as margarine. Another says if he puts out margarine, his customers won’t touch it.

But there is the whole money thing and that’s why a Wisconsin state representative, one Dale Kooyenga, is out gunning for the last of the state’s margarine laws. Something like 21,000 inmates are being fed expensive butter when margarine is cheaper. And besides, he feels it’s an antiquated, anti-free market law that’s just plain silly. And silly laws, he believes, “erode citizen’s respect for the overall rule of law in our state.”

Now, Wisconsin has a boat-load of silly laws. Why isn’t Rep. Kooyenga going after the law that bars cats and dogs from cemeteries (excepting dogs guiding the blind, of course.) Or perhaps he should tackle bike riders in Sun Prairie who ride with no hands: “No bicycle shall be allowed to proceed in any street in the city by inertia or momentum with the feet of the rider removed from the bicycle pedals. No rider of a bicycle shall remove both hands from the handlebars or practice any trick or fancy riding in any street in the city nor shall any bicycle rider carry or ride any other person so that two persons are on the bicycle at one time, unless a seat is provided for a second person.” Man, I should still be doing time for the number of violations I clocked against that one back in the day. Women in Racine can’t walk the streets at night without being accompanied by a male. Milwaukee says if you look offensive you’re not allowed to be seen on the street during the day. LaCrosse bans unclothed mannequins in store windows. And my personal favorite, one I think the Honorable Mr. Kooyenga ought to challenge: according to state law, when two trains are at an intersection, neither shall move until the other does.

It’s a good thing I’m no longer a citizen of Wisconsin. I’d feel so eroded.

Apparently, there aren’t too many of Kooyenga’s compatriots who fear erosion over the margarine law. At last count, only eleven other lawmakers – out of a possible 132 – have signed on as co-sponsors of his bill. The other 120 are no doubt sitting in their favorite eateries slathering delicious, all-natural butter on everything from fresh bread to corn on the cob.

Hey, Wisconsinites! Try this one out; Paula Deen for Governor!

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