The Laws that Time Forgot

A curious relic of a law – enacted when regulators still acted on the sides of consumers in matters of food – could soon be repealed.

A state statute from the late 1800s still on the books today makes fake butter a crime if it is yellow or if the container doesn’t clearly state “substitute for butter” in lettering at least an inch tall.

Rep. Sara Lampe, D-Springfield, is prefiling a bill today to repeal the state’s outdated butter laws.

“These statutes haven’t been enforced in decades, if not generations, and today are honored more in breach than the observance,” she said in a prepared statement. “As a result, there is no reason to keep them on the books.”

She believes the butter laws were an attempt at the time to protect “big butter” business from competition. It didn’t work: Today, grocery stores such as Moser’s Discount Foods carry four times as many substitute brands than real butter.

This poor woman has it exactly backwards. Faux butter was labeled as such against the wishes of the big business (only they could produce the complex chemical slew that is margarine…anyone with a cow can make butter) to protect consumers from fakery.

Michael Pollan has described this process:

People — actually, in the late 1900s, several states passed laws saying you had to dye your butter pink so people wouldn’t be confused and would know that that’s an imitation food. And then the Supreme Court — the industry got the Supreme Court to throw this out. And it turned out that we replaced this possibly mildly unhealthy fat called saturated fat with now a demonstrably lethal one called hydrogenated oil.

So this well-meaning legislator has raised an important issue, albeit not the one she intended. Why do so many of our laws actively work against our health and safety? And as in case of mega-dairies not wanting Weiler Dairy and other small, local farmers to be able to call their milk “hormone free,” why are we constantly having to fight for the right to know what we’re eating?


Author: Scott

I am a married father of two. I graduated from Rock Bridge High School and then Mizzou before spending six years in the Washington, D.C. area. We returned to Columbia, Missouri in 2006.

2 thoughts

  1. Not to mention, why are the laws actively tilted against small producers in the first place? If it’s so easy to repeal or pass a new law to “fix” this so-called problem, what’s so hard about passing other laws making it possible for real food to be produced locally again?

    Last year, out of curiosity, I called the MU Extension office to ask advice about what I would need to do to legally sell my goat milk, and/or make and sell our own yogurt and so on. I was looking for laws or guidance on facilities, etc. that a small farm could afford and what the baseline investment would need to be for me to do so. They had no idea how to help me, referred me to several different people who had no idea, and finally I was sent a vaguely helpful, poorly copied set of architectural drawings for a large-scale commercial barn.

    That’s the best our government can do; these folks literally had no idea what to tell a small farmer who simply wanted to sell milk, yogurt, and cheese on the side to his neighbors. And yet we can instantly mobilize the legislature to fix an obscure rule to make sure fake butter is available. Pathetic.

  2. Eric,

    If you had just started selling milk and making yogurt and selling, you can rest assurred the government would have stepped in and told that you could not do it! They may not have known how to help you, but rest assured they would have known how to stop you.

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