"IF IT'S YELLOW, IT MUST BE BUTTER":
MARGARINE REGULATION IN QUEBEC SINCE 1886

Ruth Dupre
Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales de Montreal

	In April 1918, the Canadian Minister of Agriculture, Thomas Crerar, told the House of 
Commons that "in the whole range of the business of agriculture, in all the countries where it 
is carried on, there is perhaps no question which has given rise to more controversy than the 
question of oleomargarine."1   In Quebec, some seventy years later, it was still a matter for 
public debate when in August 1987 the government passed a bill stipulating that margarine 
could not be yellow.  Many people were puzzled but would not have been had they known the 
peculiar history of margarine regulation in the Western world.

The Poor's Butter and the Politician's Bread
	Potato, bread, and soup were the staple food of the nineteenth century's poor in Europe.  
This diet may have provided sufficient carbohydrates but was quite unbalanced and 
particularly lacked protein and fat.  The fat supply was not only insufficient, its composition 
was unsatisfactory as the meat fats-suet, lard, and bacon-, which made up close to 50% of 
total fat consumption were not easily digestible nor very nutritive.  Besides, they could not 
be used as a spread.  Butter was the answer:  it could be spread and was relatively wholesome 
but its price was high, prohibitively high for most workers, and rising, by almost 100% 
between 1850 and 1870 in Europe.2   There was thus much pressure to create a substitute for 
butter.  At the 1866 Paris World Exhibition, Napoleon III offered to sponsor research to 
develop a cheap and nutritive fat.  The French food chemist Mege-Mouiries responded to the 
invitation and invented oleomargarine, made from beef tallow, in 1869.
	This invention should have been most welcome and the margarine industry encourage.  
Yet, it is hard to find another industry which had to swim against such a tide of adverse 
government policy.  Governments claimed they were protecting consumers from a product 
injurious to health or against its fraudulent sale as butter, but they had also the somewhat 
less noble objective of protecting dairy producers from a rival who could put on the market a 
substitute to butter at half its price.
	The three objectives, often intertwined, did not require the same type of government 
intervention.  If oleomargarine was really a poison deleterious to health, then nothing less 
than prohibition would do.  This is what the extremists in the 1886 debates over the 
Canadian and American oleomargarine bills argued.  They did everything to convince their 
colleagues, bringing chosen samples of margarine and reading disgusting descriptions of its 
fabrication using dead diseased cattle, horses, cats, and hogs floating into big vats.  "It  
seems incredible now that intelligent people - legislators, in fact, should have believed 
[these] stories...". wrote Snodgrass (1930:37).  Perhaps she was a little too optimistic.  
Some members of the Canadian government appeared to have taken these descriptions quite 
seriously.
	Although the preamble to the 1886 Canadian Prohibition Act reads "whereas the use of 
certain substitutes for butter...is injurious to health", most participants in the debate did not 
consider oleomargarine was a dangerous product.  It could be if improperly fabricated.  In this 
respect, margarine was not any different from other food products like butter or meat which 
were not banned by merely regulated.  By licensing, inspecting and setting up quality 
standards, the government could have supervised the manufacturing process while labelling 
and packaging norms could have taken care of the problem of fraudulous sale as butter.  Most 
countries had indeed adopted regulations of this kind yet only a few contented themselves 
with them.  The 1887 British law is representative of the "milder" type of intervention 
requiring only that margarine be properly labelled and that manufacturing establishments be 
registered and inspected.  The Dutch legislation of 1908 was similar with the supplementary 
clause that margarine should not be manufactured, stored or sold in the same place as butter.3
	Many countries have tried to prohibit the yellow coloring for margarine.  Such a policy 
could not hide as easily its protectionist motive behind public health and consumer 
protection concerns.  In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, Russia, France, 
Denmark, New Zealand and Australia passed legislation prohibiting the coloring of 
margarine.  In the U.S., the story was complicated by the mixture of federal and state 
policies.  State governments were the first to act and by 1886, no less than 22 states had 
some margarine legislation, 17 regulating labelling and packaging and seven - Maine, New 
York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ohio - downright prohibiting 
the manufacture and sale of oleomargarine.  Their prohibition bills often remained deal letter 
because there was no provision for enforcement and because the Supreme Court declared them 
unconstitutional in so far as they interfered with interstate commerce.  This led the dairy 
lobby to turn to the federal government.
	After "more thorough discussion and more reckless opposition than had been applied to 
any measure in Congress in the ten previous years,"4 the federal government passed in 1886 
a legislation which introduced a manufacturing tax of 2 cents a pound and required quite 
expensive annual licenses for manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers of margarine ($600, 
$480, and $48, respectively).  There was much evasion of licenses particularly among 
retailers who continued to sell margarine for butter whenever they could.  The dairy interests 
continued to lobby the government to bring margarine under control  State assemblies 
responded and by 1900, 32 states had passed legislation to prohibit the yellow coloring of 
margarine, the most bizarre certainly being Vermont in 1884 and West Virginia in 1891 
requiring that it be colored pink.  Finally, as in 1886, the 1902 federal amendment to the 
oleomargarine act was adopted only after a bitter fight in both houses of Congress.  The 
manufacturing tax was raised to 10 cents a pound for colored margarine and lowered to 1/4 
cent a pound for the uncolored product.  The wholesalers and retailers' licenses were also 
reduced to $200 and $6 when they traded only in uncolored margarine.  The American 
margarine policy is generally considered remarkably severe.  But on a severity scale, 
Canada, and particularly the provinces of Quebec and Ontario [the two Canadian dairy 
regions], ranked, and still rank, higher.

A Century of Margarine Regulation in Quebec
	From 1886 to 1949, the fabrication, sale and import of margarine was prohibited in 
Canada.  The 1886 Prohibition Act did not cause as heated a debate as in the U.S.  The House 
of Commons debated centered on the best way to protect the dairy producers and the 
consumers.  In April, the MPs were talking about taxing and regulating margarine but in 
May, a bill prohibiting it was introduced, defended by the Ontario rural representatives5 and 
passed with very little opposition on June 1.  There was in fact only one real opponent, 
Arthur Gillmor, MP for Charlotte, New Brunswick, who declared rather courageously that "If 
those who use oleomargarine were the electors of this country, you would not find so many 
to support this proposition."  It was indeed true that the very poor, the most likely 
consumers of margarine at that time, could not vote since the franchise was reserved to 
property-owners.6.
	The story was quite different when margarine prohibition was reinstated in 1923, after 
being lifted as a war measure in 1917.  By that time, as many opponents to the ban pointed 
out, the protectionist motive was the only one left, the dangerous nature of the product being 
impossible to defend in a world where Canada was alone to prohibit margarine.  The anti-
margarine were still, of course, the butter producers represented now by the National 
Dairying Association of Canada which comprised several provincial dairy associations.  
This time, Quebec was very present.  A petition of 29,000 Quebec farmers and resolutions 
from 800 agricultural societies were sent to the Minister of Agriculture and most of the 
Quebec MPs argued and voted in favor of prohibition.  Hence, one of the, Bouchard from 
Kamouraska, could say in 1923 that he would feel more at ease in his mother tongue but that 
he believes there are no more converts to be made among the French-Canadian members of 
the House.7.
	Women who just obtained the franchise in 1920 were at the foreground of the pro-
margarine forces, either as consumers responsible for the household budget or as heads of 
women's organizations assuming their charitable duties towards the poors' children.  The 
groups who lobbied against the return of margarine prohibition were thus women's groups 
like the National Council of Women, the Montreal Women's Club, the Housewives' League, 
the Catholic Women's League, the Jewish
 Council of Women, joined by the Great War Veteran's Association, the Retail Merchants 
Association of Canada, the Boards of Trade of many cities and the Salvation Army.
	Faced with this sharp division in the public opinion and in the House of Commons, the 
Government  played for time by permitting the manufacture and sale of margarine for one 
year at a time from 1919 to 1923.  This made the political struggle to last six years and to 
fill hundreds of pages of Hansard with incredibly tedious and repetitive speeches about the 
importance of the dairy industry for Canada and about protectionism.  The Mackenzie King 
government finally reinstated margarine prohibition in June 1923 arguing that the 
government had to respect the pledge made to the farmers during the war that the lift of the 
ban would last only as long as "abnormal conditions" prevailed.  The vote crossed party 
lines and was 125 to 54.
	In 1949, the 1886 federal margarine law was contested in the Supreme Court from three 
different sides.  The government of Quebec argued that Trade regulation was a provincial 
right; a senator (Hayden) claimed that margarine prohibition favored one class at the 
expense of all others;  and a consumers' representative, Margaret Hyndman, that it infringed 
on the civil rights of thousands of housemakers.  The Supreme Court declared it 
unconstitutional on the grounds that margarine was no longer an injurious product against 
which the population had to be protected [a federal jurisdiction] and that it concerned not 
only interprovincial or international but also intraprovincial trade [a provincial 
jurisdiction].
	From then on, margarine regulation became a provincial responsibility.  Only three 
provinces took over:  Ontario forbade (and still does) "butter yellow" margarine, while 
Quebec and Prince Edward Island prohibited its manufacturing and sale.  As soon as the 
Supreme Court decision was known in December 1948, the Premier Ministre of Quebec, 
Maurice Duplessis, reassured the Quebec dairy farmers that his government would not let 
them down and warned margarine manufacturers not to make plans for Quebec too rapidly.  
Less than three months later, a bill with the revealing title "An Act to protect the dairy 
industry in the province" was adopted on March 10, 1949, almost unanimously (71 to 8).  It 
authorized the government to adopt, upon the recommendation of the Minister of 
Agriculture, the regulations which he may deem expedient and just to prohibit or regulate the 
manufacture, sale and possession of margarine.
	A week later, on March 17, an order in council prohibited the manufacture and sale of 
margarine in quebec.  The preamble is extremely instructive:  there are nine "whereas", five 
of them concerned the dairy industry, two of them protection against foreign products, and 
two stated that the ban was also in the interest of the working class, the group most clearly 
disadvantaged by the measure.  They may be worth quoting to illustrate the great amount of 
imagination legislators can show:
	"Whereas it is necessary, in the interest of all classes of society, particularly in the 
interest of the working class, to 	maintain a suitable equilibrium  between the rural 
population and the urban population;...
	Whereas the weakening or disappearance of the dairy industry in the Province of Quebec 
would deprive the workmen and 	their children of a healthy and indispensable nourishment, 
one that is produced entirely in the Province of Quebec."
	In 1961 margarine was finally legalized.  At first sight, this legalization seems 
characteristic of the new spirit of the "Quiet Revolution" decade when Quebec society is said 
to have, belatedly but suddenly, stepped into the modern times.  But in fact, it was the 
farmers' union (l'Union des cultivateurs catholiques) who asked the Quebec government to 
replace the ban by regulation.  They felt that the 1949 ban had not been enforced and that 
butter substitutes were sold as "spreads" in Quebec as freely as in the other provinces, even 
more freely than in Ontario, since these "spreads" were colored yellow.8   The new Liberal 
government complied with the 1961 Dairy Substitutes Act which regulated licensing, 
labelling, coloring, and advertising.  As in Ontario, margarine could not be sold yellow with 
the result that manufacturers supplied a coloring capsule to the consumers to color it 
themselves, something housemakers did not seem to have appreciated much.
	In 1969, the Dairy Products Act and the Dairy Product Substitutes Act were merged and 
the clause on coloring was relegated to an order-in-council in the Gazette officielle de 
Quebec, reducing the visibility of the anit-color regulation.  It remained there until December 
when it quietly disappeared unnoticed.  The 1987 new ban on yellow margarine ended the 
brief 15-year interval of total freedom since 1886.  Once again, there was a violent debate 
between the farmers' organization (the Union des producteurs agricoles (ex-UCC) and the 
Federation des producteurs laitiers du Quebec) and the consumers' association and the 
margarine producers.  Once again, the dairy interests won it.  Quebec and Ontario might now 
be, so far as we know, the only places left in the world still regulating the color of 
margarine.

A Public Choice Explanation
	Why was Quebec regulation so restrictive?  Some may be tempted spontaneously by the 
cultural explanation, for instance the typical "protective impulse" of the Canadians or the 
"deeper-rural roots" of the Quebecers.  The economic theory of regulation, however, suggests 
an interesting alternative.  When they feel margarine is a serious rival, all dairy producers, in 
Wisconsin, New Zealand or Quebec, want governments to protect them.  Whether they are 
successful depends on the opponents they are facing.  If only consumers and margarine 
producers oppose margarine regulation, as in Quebec, the dairy lobby prospects are very 
good.  In the public choice literature, this is a straightforward case of a policy with 
concentrated benefits and diffuse costs.
	When other domestic agricultural interests are involved, the outcome may be quite 
different.  The U.S. case is the best example.  Until the First World War, most margarine was 
produced from beef fat (oleo) and some of it from cottonseed oil  This explains why the 
Western livestock interests and the Southern cotton growers were against the 
"federalization" of the prohibition already in force in the seven northern dairy states.  They 
openly fought the 1886 federal margarine legislation and its 1902 amendment.  During the 
war, the scarcity of animal raw materials and the new oil hardening process introduced from 
Europe in 1915 led to the use of coconut oil which accounted for 75% of the oil used in the 
fabrication of U.S. margarine in 1932.  As a result, livestock farmers and cotton growers lost 
interest in the margarine industry which had become "un-American."9  Federal and state 
legislation against margarine grew in number and severity during this interwar period.  
Margarine regained political support from the Midwest farmers with the use of soya bean 
which came to represent by the 1960's close to 75% of the total raw material used in 
margarine.  In 1949, the House of Representatives repealed the discriminatory tax on yellow 
margarine, although only by a slim majority of 152 to 140 votes.  The state ban on coloring 
began to disappear in the 1940s, the last one being Wisconsin in 1967.
	But cannot we say this about Canada as well?  What about the cattle producers of the 
Western provinces and the Ontario soya bean producers?  In the 1886 debate, the Western 
interests could not be present for the simple reason that the Prairies did not "exist" as a 
political entity.  They were just beginning to develop and Manitoba was the only Prairie 
province with a mere 3% of the Canadian population at the 1891 Census.  The Western MPs 
participated in the 1920s debate over the reestablishment of the ban and they were generally 
not anti-margarine.  Heick (1991:32) illustrates well this point with his story of the fate of 
the anti-margarine resolutions submitted to the annual meeting of the United Farmers of 
Alberta and of the Saskatchewan Grain Growers' Association:  no one appeared in its support 
and it was "not dealt with."
	The Ontario case is more complex.  There were, and still are, both dairy producers and 
soya bean growers and the latter sell oil to the margarine industry and oilcakes to feed the 
cows.  This perhaps explains why Ontario in 1949 adopted a "middle of the road" legislation 
instead of replacing the federal prohibition by one of its own.  Newspapers reported in 
January 1949 that the 400 delegates to the meeting of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture 
disapproved the coming of margarine but felt it was inevitable.  They were not asking that 
the Ontario government prohibit, but only that it be regulated.
	In conclusion, the differences in the political landscape of Canada and U.S. have to be 
taken into account.  In Canada, it just happened that the two dairy regions, Quebec and 
Ontario, were the two provinces with the most political clout.

______________________________________________________________________
1House of Commons, Debates, 1918, p. 307. 
2 This account of the dietary needs which led to the invention of margarine is taken from Hoffmann 
(1969:11-13).  To illustrate this point, Hoffmann gives some figures for Hamburg where 1 kg of butter cost 
1.32 marks in 1850 and 2.44 marks in 1869 while a Prussian miner received in 1870 a wage of 2.59 marks 
for one shift. 
3 The information on margarine legislation outside North America is taken from Van Stuyvenberg 
(1969:290-318) and in the U.S. from Snodgrass (1930:28-116).
4 As stated by the chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture.  See Snodgrass (1930:33.)
5 Hence, Heick's judicious choice of title "What Ontario wants, Canada gets..." for his 1988 article on the 
1886 margarine debate.
6 Gillmor in the House of Commons, Debates 1886, p. 552.  The minimal value of property was about $400 
at the time of Confederation and was progressively reduced to allow retired people and well-off tenants to 
vote.  As women did not have the franchise before 1920, voters represented only 15 to 25 percent of the 
population until the First World War.  Bernard (1982:168).
7 House of Commons, Debates 1923, p. 3562.
8 The resolution adopted at the UCC's annual meeting in the fall of 1960 was reproduced next tot the text of 
the Dairy Substitutes Act in the farmer union's weekly, La terre de chez nous of May 31, 1961, p. 6.
9 This information comes from Van Stuyvenberg (1969:288).  He argues without substantiating it that they 
went even further and formed a united agricultural front with the dairy farmers against the margarine 
industry.