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Butter

A federal judge on Monday upheld Wisconsin's law requiring that butter be state or federally graded to be sold in Wisconsin.

A federal judge on Monday dismissed a lawsuit brought against Wisconsin officials last year by an Ohio dairy no longer allowed to sell its butter in Wisconsin unless it complies with a state law requiring it to be graded.

U.S. District Judge James Peterson wrote Monday that a state law requiring that butter sold in Wisconsin be state or federally graded does not violate the constitutional rights of Minerva Dairy, of Minerva, Ohio. The dairy had sold artisanal butter in Wisconsin until February 2017, when state inspectors discovered, after receiving an anonymous complaint, that the butter was ungraded and ordered the company to comply with the law.

Peterson wrote in his decision that the law “is rationally related to Wisconsin’s legitimate interest in helping its citizens make informed butter purchases.”

“The state may require grade labels on retail butter packages so that consumers could purchase butter with confidence in its quality,” Peterson wrote. “Consumer protection is a legitimate governmental interest.”

The state has an interest in ensuring that citizens don’t buy “mealy,” “musty” or “scorched” butter, Peterson wrote, referring to characteristics included in the grading system, and in believing that butter-grading results in better-informed consumers.

Minerva, Peterson wrote, argues that some might disagree with the preferences of state inspectors and points out that Wisconsin doesn’t require grading for other products, such as honey. But Peterson said the dairy hadn’t shown that the butter-grading law lacks a rational basis.

Peterson also rejected Minerva’s argument that the state law discriminates against artisanal butter makers like Minerva whose products are sold across state lines.

Joshua Thompson of the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represents Minerva in the lawsuit, said the company is “obviously disappointed in the decision” and plans to appeal.

“We believe strongly in the claims that we brought,” Thompson said. “We understand that the government gets a lot of deference in these cases, but we will be taking this to the Seventh Circuit.”

Minerva’s lawsuit states that because Minerva isn’t based in Wisconsin, it’s not eligible to have its products graded on site by Wisconsin inspectors, and becoming federally graded would be cost-prohibitive.

Thompson said that Minerva has not sought to be graded in the meantime and never will because it would be “detrimental to its national brand,” and it will remain available in all states but Wisconsin.

Minerva had filed its lawsuit against then-state Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel, Attorney General Brad Schimel and Peter Haase, food and recreational safety director for the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

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Ed Treleven is the courts reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.