Sunday, August 2, is the anniversary of the Oleomargarine Act, signed by President Grover Cleveland in 1886, when the dairy constituency official denied “Butterine,” a nonbutter product, its place in the dairy case. After a heated Congressional debate, the Butter Act of 1886 was created and it remains the only standard of identity for a food product set by Congress.
It was also a precursor to the food-safety system that protects U.S. consumers to this day, according to the National Milk Producers Federation.
Here’s the story they tell:
In 1886, the United States was living in the Wild West, literally – the Gunfight at the OK Corral had happened only five years earlier. The food arena’s Wild West was marked by an absence of consumer protections from sometimes deadly food swindles. Honest dairy farmers struggled to protect their reputations from unscrupulous makers of products like “swill milk” – concoctions heavily adulterated to boost profits – and pathogen-bearing raw milk.
To counteract this, margarine, which was Invented in France in 1869, began to be mass produced in the U.S. and was quickly taken over by Chicago meatpackers who saw a profitable use for animal fat that was previously wasted. Margarine was cheap to make and was promoted as a butter substitute, even though its main similarity came from the yellow dye added to make consumers think it was a dairy equivalent.
“With no restrictions on marketing claims and no legal definition of what butter was and wasn’t,” the federation said in their release, “animal-fat purveyors intentionally blurred the line between butter and “butterine,” sometimes attempting to pass off what dairy advocates called “bogus butter” as real. States began passing a patchwork of laws regulating, taxing and identifying oleomargarine—sometimes by requiring it to be dyed pink. Dairy farmers found local laws weren’t enough, and demanded a national solution.
The list of dairy’s opponents included the meatpackers, along with industries that didn’t think the government should regulate private economic activity, interstate commerce, agriculture or public health. In the end, passage of the law by Congress was overwhelming and bipartisan, with opposition mostly confined to lawmakers from southern states who argued that defining butter violated “states’ rights.”
Not only did the dairy farmers win, it set a precedent in the role of the federal government in regulating food. Twenty years later, spurred on by Sinclair Lewis’ book, “The Jungle,”—which exposed deplorable conditions among the same meatpackers who opposed the Butter Act—Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, the foundation of today’s food-safety regulation. Standards of identity that define what foods are and aren’t became accepted necessities for a fair marketplace. Product formulations became more transparent. And marketing claims that try to peddle one product by inappropriately implying it has the qualities of another were stifled by a federal government now empowered to protect consumers.
And now the federation is fighting plant-based “butters” that they consider akin to margarines, as well as nut-based “milks.”
Are consumers better off today knowing that butter is butter and margarine is margarine? Absolutely, says the federation. Did margarine find an appropriate place in the market, even though it was no longer called “butterine”?” It did. And did the federal government, after decades of prodding, do the right thing in protecting product integrity and requiring clear labeling? Yes, again, they say. But none of it happened without effort and appropriate and effective government action.
Progress often comes via fits, false starts and setbacks. But it happens.