Wisconsin resident Jean Smith snatches up entire stocks of her beloved Kerrygold Irish butter from stores when visiting family in Nebraska, thanks to an antiquated law in her dairy-obsessed state that bans it and any other butter that hasn't been graded for quality.
"We bring back 20 bricks or so," Smith said, noting 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."
Tired of trekking across state lines to stock up, she and a handful of other Wisconsin butter aficionados filed a lawsuit this week challenging the law, saying 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.
On the books since 1953, the law is strict: It requires butters to be rated on various measures — including flavor, body and color — 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," and its color as "mottled," ''streaked" or "speckled."
Anybody convicted of selling unlabeled or ungraded butter is subject to a fine between $100 and $1,000 and six months in jail.
Wisconsin is the only state in the nation with such a stringent butter provision, which the lawsuit argues amounts to an unconstitutional "government-mandated 'taste test.'" The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative legal group representing the plaintiffs, said the grading process is subjective and doesn't protect consumers. 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 saying his consumer-protection agency has to uphold state law, but noted that enforcement "has been limited to notifying retailers of what the law says."
Ornua, the company that markets Kerrygold, isn't part of the lawsuit and 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 residents frustrated 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."
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