It fought in the supermarket aisles, it fought in the Supreme Court, but the Quebec government has finally surrendered in its battle to keep butter-coloured margarine off the province’s dinner tables.
An aide to Liberal Agriculture Minister Laurent Lessard confirmed yesterday that a regulation prohibiting the sale of coloured margarine will soon be repealed. Quebec will thus shed its status as the only jurisdiction in North America regulating the colour of margarine, and by the end of the month Quebecers could be savouring buttery yellow margarine.
The province had been the last front in Canada’s margarine wars, which pitted a protectionist dairy industry against canola farmers and multi-national margarine manufacturers. For margarine consumers here, it has meant starting their mornings with an unappealing lard-white spread on their toast.
“We are confident that consumers will be able to tell the difference between butter and margarine, without the help of colouring,” Fréderic Lagacé, an aide to Mr. Lessard, said.
The province’s powerful dairy lobby, which 10 years ago beat back an attempt to de-regulate margarine sales, is now giving up without a fight.
“We are not happy with this decision by the government, but we have evaluated the eventual impact, and it was decided that there will be no battle, no public outcry, no protests on this matter,” said Jean Vigneault, communications director of the Fédération des producteurs de lait du Québec, which represents Quebec’s 6,800 dairy farms. “For us, the page is turned and the battle is over.”
Farmers do not relish the sight of margarine mimicking butter any more than Louis Vuitton likes seeing its handbags pirated by enterprising Asian craftsmen, but Mr. Vigneault said he is confident taste will win out. It does not hurt that margarine’s reputation as a healthy alternative has taken a beating with concern over trans fats in hydrogenated vegetable oils.
“We do not think today it will have an important impact on sales of butter in relation to margarine. It does not worry us any more,” Mr. Vigneault said of the regulatory change.
Ontario repealed similar restrictions in 1995, but Quebec had stubbornly resisted. In 2005, margarine manufacturer Unilever Canada Inc. lost a Supreme Court challenge of Quebec’s ban. Unilever had argued in part that prohibiting yellow margarine infringed on its “commercial freedom of expression.”
Later that year, an interprovincial trade panel found that Quebec’s ban on yellow margarine violated the 1995 Agreement on Internal Trade, but until now Quebec has ignored the ruling. In November, 2005, provincial Agriculture Department inspectors raided four Wal-Mart stores in the Quebec City area and seized 72 tubs of illicit yellow margarine. The action came a day after an outraged member of the opposition Parti Québécois tabled a Unileverproduced container of yellow margarine in the National Assembly, saying he had purchased it in Quebec City.
Quebec’s change of heart was welcomed by Sean McPhee, president of the Vegetable Oil Industry of Canada, a group representing canola growers and margarine manufacturers. The need for separate production runs has added as much as $5-million annually to the cost of supplying margarine to the Quebec market. He said the colour difference explains why margarine’s share of the total “spread market” is much less in Quebec than in the other provinces.
“It’s a good move,” he said. “It means consumers in Quebec will no longer be penalized and will enjoy margarine in the same colour as consumers everywhere else in the world.”
Ultimately, Quebec’s decision seems to have been motivated more by fear of trade repercussions than by any concern for consumer tastes. Last month, provincial and territorial ministers responsible for internal trade agreed to recommend stiff penalties of up to $5-million for any province not respecting the Agreement on Internal Trade. Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, all canola-producing provinces, had spearheaded opposition to Quebec’s regulation.