The Pink Oleo Saga: Why So Many Good State Laws Are “Unconstitutional” (and What We Should Do About It) (2008)

By Jane Anne Morris

What’s pink, French, and unconstitutional?

Hint: The story of this early “frankenfood” provides an advance script for the current global “free trade” frenzy. Over a century ago, its introduction was an occasion for greasing the skids toward establishing a U.S. “free trade” zone, one that is as devastating to local democracy as the WTO and NAFTA are to national sovereignty.

Why would the Supreme Court throw out state laws requiring oleomargarine to be colored pink? Why would state legislators pass such seemingly silly laws to begin with?

Why are provisions that protect citizens against fraud, safeguard their health, and protect local industry unconstitutional in the eyes of the Supreme Court? A recent example applies to corporate agriculture. A South Dakota constitutional amendment — passed by 59% in 1998 — prohibited most corporate ownership of land used for agriculture. In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively threw it out. Nebraska’s even stronger anti-corporate agriculture constitutional amendment, first passed in 1982, was ruled unconstitutional in 2006 by a lower federal court–citing the South Dakota case.1 Why do such measures garner the dreaded unconstitutional label?
Probably for the same reason that has stood for over a century: they interfere with the care and feeding of large corporations. They challenge the Supreme Court’s policy, evident since at least the 1870s, of nurturing and protecting corporations against the very states that created them. After corporate lawyers do the research and outline possible arguments, the Court has only to cut-and-paste a decision.

The myth that the Supreme Court began its turn toward “business interests” only since the early Nader years (as claimed by Jeffrey Rosen in “Supreme Court, Inc.” in the March 16, 2008 New York Times Magazine) ignores the long history that fills the pages of Gaveling Down the Rabble.

Commerce Clause to the Rescue

Even the Supreme Court needs to point to something in the Constitution that justifies its consistent pro-corporate decisions. The handy constitutional clause that has become a favorite is the domestic version of international “trade barrier” language: the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The Congress shall have power… to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes. [Article I, section 8, clause 3]

The late-nineteenth century Pink Oleo saga provides a perfect example for a quickie workshop on how the Supreme Court uses “free trade” to get rid of good state laws.

After the mid-nineteenth century, more than one inventor around the world sought to turn slaughterhouse offal into something that people could be convinced to eat. If it had a long shelf life and was cheap to make, all the better. The successful solution came from Frenchman Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, who obtained a U.S. patent for oleomargarine in 1873. Its commercial potential was quickly appreciated, as Mark Twain captured in a chapter of Life On the Mississippi written in 1883. The gleeful conversation takes place between two businessmen on a riverboat.

You can’t tell it from butter; by George, even an expert can’t!… We’re going to have that entire trade… You are going to see the day, pretty soon, when you can’t find an ounce of butter to bless yourself with… we can sell it so dirt-cheap that the whole country has got to take it… There’s more money in oleomargarine than–why, you can’t imagine the business we do. [emphasis in original]

Oleomargarine’s introduction into a nation long accustomed to the joys of udder butter churned up controversy. The “Oleo Wars” that ensued pitted state legislators against the growing power of meatpacking corporations. Corporate efforts to put oleomargarine in the nation’s pantries tell the archetypal story; at issue was whether state and local governments would determine their own laws, or have terms dictated to them by distant corporations.

The original oleomargarine was made not from vegetable oils (as it is today) but from slaughterhouse byproducts subjected to industrial processes in a factory. Mere inspection of a firkin of manufactured oleomargarine could not determine whether it had been made from inferior, doctored, or even dangerous ingredients. To add insult to possible injury, sometimes this easily adulterated industrial food product was fraudulently sold as real dairy butter. In addition, many feared that competition from oleomargarine would threaten the growing dairy industry. Health, consumer protection, and economic concerns were closely intertwined.

In response to citizen concerns, state legislatures started passing laws against oleomargarine. At the time, protectionist measures of this ilk were nothing out of the ordinary. In 1884, the New York state legislature prohibited the sale or manufacture of oleomargarine. In 1885, Pennsylvania followed suit. These and other overtly protectionist acts reflected the people’s will to use their imperfect representative democracies to keep out a product they feared would endanger them.

Manufacturers and purveyors of oleomargarine as a cheap butter substitute (and source of profits) were not pleased at this legislative attention. A variety of laws and a matching variety of corporate challenges evolved into a cat-and-mouse game between legislature and court ostensibly over artificial butter. Pennsylvania’s outright ban on oleomargarine was an early target.

On the same day that the 1885 Pennsylvania law was passed, a Harrisburg grocer (Powell) was arrested for selling oleomargarine. Lawyers representing corporations that manufactured and sold oleomargarine argued on his behalf that their product was clean, pure, and yummy, and that the right to make and sell it was covered by the Constitution. On the other side, defenders of the Pennsylvania ban argued that its intent to protect health and prevent fraud made it a legitimate exercise of a state’s “police power,” the legal term for the power to pass whatever laws are necessary and appropriate to protect its citizens.

State Courts Upheld Rights of Legislatures to Protect People

A Pennsylvania court found the ban to be well within legislative powers. In 1888, the U.S. Supreme Court also upheld it, strongly endorsing a state’s police power. The Court affirmed that protecting and preserving public health and morals was one of the main tasks of legislation, and that public policy should be determined not by courts but by legislatures. If some were dissatisfied with the legislative outcome, then appeal should be “to the legislature, or to the ballot-box, not to the judiciary.”2

But “Big Oleomargarine” tried again a few years later. In 1893, a Pennsylvania resident (Schollenberger) and registered agent for a Rhode Island oleomargarine-manufacturing corporation sold a tub of oleomargarine in Pennsylvania. After the Pennsylvania Supreme Court again upheld the state’s ban, the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. But meanwhile, states were also trying out a more colorful approach.

State legislatures that wanted to keep oleomargarine out of their states — and there were many of them — did not give up when their oleo bans were threatened by commerce clause arguments. Instead, they started to see pink as a way to regulate oleomargarine.

In 1890, the Vermont legislature prohibited the manufacture of oleomargarine in that state, and specified that it could be sold in Vermont only if colored pink. In 1891 Minnesota, West Virginia, and New Hampshire passed similar laws. Not long afterwards, an alert Minnesota oleomargarine S.W.A.T. team carried out a pantry raid and confiscated a quantity of not-pink oleomargarine that had been imported from Missouri by Armour Packing Co., a New Jersey corporation. A federal court upheld Minnesota’s pink law as an appropriate use of the state’s police power. Things were looking good for the “pink is beautiful” movement.

But it was not to last. Corporate lawyers challenged the “pink oleo” laws just as they had challenged the oleomargarine bans. Both the Minnesota Pink Law and the Pennsylvania Oleo Ban reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1898.

Because only ten years earlier the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld an oleo ban as a legitimate use of a state’s police power, defenders of the Pennsylvania law reiterated tried-and-true arguments about protecting and preserving public health. Little did they know that a new argument would be offered and the Supreme Court would go for it. This time, “Big Oleo” trumped arguments about state police power and public health and welfare by playing the commerce card. The oleomargarine corporation lawyers argued that the Pennsylvania oleomargarine ban was what today the WTO tribunals would call an illegal trade barrier. The U.S. Supreme Court was persuaded, and, basing its decision on the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause, the late nineteenth century analog of what today is touted as “free trade,” ruled the Pennsylvania law unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court’s reasoning had two steps. First, it determined that oleo was included in the “interstate commerce” category. Inclusion in this category had consequences, which were the second step. An item of interstate commerce might be regulated by a state, but could not be prohibited, said the Supreme Court. “Absolute prohibition of an unadulterated, healthy, and pure article” goes beyond the allowable use of the state police power. A state cannot prohibit the import from another state of a “lawful article of commerce,” because that amounts to regulating interstate commerce, which is a power of the U.S. Congress.3

The decision took a big bite out of a state’s police power. The ban that had been okay in 1888 was unconstitutional by 1898. Now, a state would have difficulty banning the import of anything that the Supreme Court could be persuaded was an article of commerce (and by the late twentieth century, this included toxic waste, air pollution, and nuclear waste, among many other things.)

Pink wouldn’t work either: again the high court sided with the corporations against the states. States’ pink oleo laws were unconstitutional because the pinkness requirement was as much a burden on commerce as a ban. The reasoning was that if a state lacked the power to prohibit the import of something (in this case, oleomargarine), then it also lacked the power to require that the imported item be adulterated in such a way that it would be unsalable. As for example, by requiring that oleomargarine be pink… or blue or red or black (other colors mentioned by the Supreme Court)… or impregnated with an “offensive smell.”4

In ruling against blue or stinky oleomargarine laws, the Supreme Court took another bite out of an already dwindling state police power. Legislatures, responding to a new situation (in this case, the appearance of a new product) acted to protect citizens against inferior products, fraud, and economic disruption. In this, they were supported by farmers and dairy corporations. So far, it sounds democratic enough, a routine use of the police power.

But then lawyers working on behalf of corporations hoping to profit from this new product challenged the states’ power to take such action.5 These challenges, being constitutional in nature, brought the matter before federal courts and ultimately to the Supreme Court. In evaluating the issue and explaining their decision, the justices had exactly the kinds of discussions that must have previously occurred in state legislatures, and prior to that, on street corners and in hayfields scattered throughout the states.

They discussed the invention, composition, and manufacture of oleomargarine; methods of determining its purity; testimony from an analytical chemist; the fact that it was used by armies and navies throughout Europe; and what size and type of container it might be packaged in. The justices then gave their opinion that oleomargarine was obviously safe and widely recognized as a food item, and that butter and oleomargarine were “substantially identical.” In short, they had the kind of discussion that we might want a legislature to have. But they are not legislators.

“Free Trade” Constitutionalized in Commerce Clause

Using the commerce clause, the “free trade” mantra of the time, they decided that states could not ban the manufacture, import, and sale of a substance that obviously many states wanted to ban. In other words, Supreme Court justices legislated their own opinions by declaring unconstitutional laws that they disagreed with. The Supreme Court acted as a legislature. If we step back from the Supreme Court’s musings on oleomargarine chemistry and pink dye as a burden on commerce, we can see the oleomargarine rulings for what they were: direct assaults on people’s power to govern themselves and shape their communities.

The language of commerce (or trade), shrouded in the gravitas of constitutionality, is a ruse to disguise a corporate elite’s efforts to escape government actions taken to protect the public welfare. It has long been understood that corporate interests use the judicial lever to undo legislative deeds. According to a legal historian, writing in 1943:

The old fights of state against nation were largely smoke screens to hide an attempt by some private interest to invoke the aid of the Court in combating public regulation. In large measure, this is the case today.6

The underlying issue is not whether butter is better, or whether pink margarine is repulsive, or even whether food policy (or economic policy) should be a local, state, or national matter. The issue is who should decide public policy: the people acting through a legislature, or a handful of judges.

Courts provided a more favorable forum than did legislatures for a “rematch” between corporations and states. Commerce clause rulings exempted corporations from the concrete exercise of state and local power, while delivering them into the kinder and gentler hands of the federal judiciary. In Gaveling Down the Rabble, I show how Supreme Court Justices since the 1870s used trade barrier language based on the Constitution’s commerce clause to promote the corporate agenda by invalidating state and local laws that threatened corporate power.

Like the “Oleo Wars,” other controversies decided under the commerce clause amounted to corporate challenges of state and local laws, with the role of arbiter falling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Analogous struggles were played out over other staples, and in other industries, with surprisingly few variations to this day.7

The transformation of the commerce clause into a wish-fulfillment machine for corporate lawyers was breathtaking. The harm to democracy done by the commerce clause “doctrine” is as damaging to democracy as the “separate but equal” doctrine was to human rights. Both deserve the same fate.

If African-American schoolchildren in unheated schoolrooms could understand “separate but equal” and in the face of horrible violence courageously demand its rejection, then today, those of us striving for justice and sustainability ought to be able to see the Supreme Court’s commerce clause doctrine for the anti-democratic pro-corporate scam that it is. I can only hope that we can begin to show the same courage in working to reject it.

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This article was adapted from Gaveling Down the Rabble: How “Free Trade” Is Stealing Our Democracy. You can also read it here. Jane Anne Morris generally cooks with olive oil.

First published in Spring 2008 By What Authority.

Notes

  1. The Court refused to hear an appeal of a federal court’s order preventing enforcement of the South Dakota measure, on grounds that included commerce (S.D. Farm Bureau v. Hazeltine (2004)). The Nebraska case was Jones v. Gale, 470 R. 3d 1261 (2006) 8th Cir. Neb.
  2. The state court case that found the law constitutional was Powell v. Commonwealth, 114 Penn. St. 265 (1887). The U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld the ban was Powell v. Pennsylvania (1888).
  3. Schollenberger v. Pennsylvania (1898).
  4. Collins v. New Hampshire (1898). The lower federal court case that had previously upheld Minnesota’s law was Armour Packing Co. v. Snyder, 84 Fed. 136 (1897).
  5. See Martha C. Howard’s excellent work, The Margarine Industry in the U.S.: Its Development Under Legislative Control (Columbia Univ. dissertation, 1951).
  6. George D. Braden, “Umpire to the Federal system,” 10 Univ. of Chicago Law Rev. 27 (1942-3).
  7. Fargo v. Stevens (1887); Leloup v. Port of Mobile (1888); Fargo v. Hart (1904); Ludwig v. Western Union Tel. Co. (1910); Atchison, T. & S.F. Ry. v. O’Connor (1912); Looney v. Crane Co. (1917); N. J. Bell Tel. Co. v. State Board (1930). State and local efforts to protect their economies against things like chain stores and “big box” stores continued, but tended to use more indirect means, such as zoning details or parts-per-million regulations. Corporate strategies also evolved, often using the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses, or other corporate constitutional “rights,” to force their way into communities.