Butter ban sparks fight in butter-loving Wisconsin
Wisconsin resident Jean Smith snatches up entire stocks of her beloved Kerrygold Irish butter from stores when she visits family in Nebraska. She does this thanks to an outdated law in her dairy-obsessed state. It bans it and any other butter that hasn't been graded for quality.
"We bring back 20 bricks or so," Smith said. She noted that she plops a tablespoon of the Ireland-made butter into her tea each morning. "It's creamier. It doesn't have any waxy taste. And it's a richer yellow."
But she is tired of trekking across state lines to stock up. So she and a handful of other Wisconsin butter enthusiasts have filed a lawsuit. They are challenging the law. They say local consumers and businesses "are more than capable of determining whether butter is sufficiently creamy, properly salted, or too crumbly." No government help needed, they say.
The law has been on the books since 1953. It is strict. It requires butters to be rated on various measures. Those include flavor, body and color. The ratings are made by the federal government or people licensed as butter and cheese graders with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
Wisconsin's grading scale dictates that the highest-graded butter must "possess a fine and highly pleasing butter flavor." Graders might describe a butter as "crumbly," "gummy" or "sticky." Its color must be "mottled," "streaked" or "speckled."
Anybody convicted of selling unlabeled or ungraded butter is subject to a fine. It could be between $100 and $1,000. Violators could receive six months in jail.
Wisconsin is the only state in the nation with such a stringent butter provision. The lawsuit argues that it amounts to an unconstitutional "government-mandated 'taste test.'" The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative legal group representing the plaintiffs. The group said the grading process is subjective. It doesn't protect consumers, the group said. The real issue, the group argues, is personal freedom.
Institute attorney Jake Curtis acknowledged it's a light-hearted case. "But economic liberty is a civil right."
Department spokesman Bill Cosh released a statement. He said his consumer-protection agency has to uphold state law. But he noted that enforcement "has been limited to notifying retailers of what the law says."
Ornua is the company that markets Kerrygold and Ornua isn't part of the lawsuit. The company declined to comment on the case. The Wisconsin Dairy Products Association didn't immediately return a message seeking comment.
Curtis said he's also heard from frustrated residents. They can't buy their favorite Danish and Icelandic varieties near home. Smith said Kerrygold butter, which uses milk from grass-fed and hormone-free cows, occasionally shows up in stores near her home in Waukesha but its availability is unpredictable.
"If I couldn't get Kerrygold, I would use the other butter," Smith said. "It just doesn't taste as good."
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why is Wisconsin so into butter?
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