They called it “Butterine,” and it was the “innovation” of its times.Click here to see more...
But it was an imposter. Dairy fought its labeling chicanery, with outcomes that have benefited consumers ever since.
That’s why everyone should remember – and be thankful for — the Butter Act.
Sunday, Aug. 2, is the anniversary of what was officially named the Oleomargarine Act, signed by President Grover Cleveland in 1886. The product of heated Congressional debate, what became remembered as the Butter Act of 1886 created what to this day remains the only standard of identity for a food product set by Congress rather than regulators.
It was also a precursor to the food-safety system that protects U.S. consumers to this day.
Context: 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 utter 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 that sickened families in the days before pasteurization.
Enter margarine. Invented in France in 1869, mass production in the U.S. was quickly dominated by Chicago meatpackers (soon to be immortalized in a famous novel about their manufacturing practices — “The Jungle,” by Upton Sinclair) who saw a profitable use for previously wasted animal fat. Made cheaply and sold widely, margarine was promoted as a suitable 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, animal-fat purveyors intentionally blurred the line between butter and “butterine,” sometimes attempting to pass off what dairy advocates called “bogus butter” as real. Dairy farmers worried that, over time, a lack of clear distinction would erode consumer and create a less transparent marketplace. States began passing patchworks of laws regulating, taxing and identifying oleomargarine – sometimes by requiring it to be dyed pink. But as the patchwork proliferated, a national solution was clearly needed.
Congress debated. The list of dairy’s opponents was long, including the meatpackers; industries that didn’t think the government should regulate private economic activity, interstate commerce, agriculture or public health; and newspaper naysayers who wondered why dairy didn’t simply accept “innovation” and found butter disputes faintly ridiculous. In the end, passage was overwhelming and bipartisan, with opposition mostly confined to lawmakers from southern states who argued that defining butter violated “states’ rights.”
Dairy won. And by establishing a role for the federal government in regulating food, consumers won as well — in ways that would turn out to be much more profound than the simple differences between two products.
Twenty years later, spurred on by “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.