By KEVIN WALKER
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Maple syrup producers feel they’ve earned everything the word “maple” means that’s good and wholesome – and they’re letting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) know it.
In a petition letter dated Feb. 15, the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Assoc. (VMSMA) and 12 other maple producer groups asked the FDA to take action against food companies using the word on their food labels to describe foods that have little or no maple syrup.
In a VMSMA press release dated Feb. 16, Vermont U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch issued a joint statement on the subject: “Every product that is sold with a false or misleading claim of maple on the label deceives the consumer, erodes the well-earned reputation for quality of pure maple and steals income from maple producers in Vermont and across the Northeast.
“Consumers seek out pure maple syrup and are willing to pay the fair price for this superb and sustainably produced, highly nutritious and all-natural sweetener. The FDA needs to act now to eliminate these misleading labels.”
Maple producers from Connecticut, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York and Wisconsin all signed the letter.
The International Maple Syrup Institute and North American Maple Syrup Council also signed on.
According to the letter, the word “maple” has long meant maple syrup in the context of foods and it says federal regulation requires an ingredient that affects the price or consumer acceptance of a food must be listed on the label, along with the quantity of the ingredient in the food, expressed as a percentage.
But according to the letter, often food companies violate the regulation by using the word even though the food contains little or no maple syrup. Other foods are labeled with images of maple trees, maple leaves or images of maple syrup, suggesting the presence of maple syrup even though there is none.
As part of the letter, eight food products are listed along with a picture of the product and its ingredients label, as examples. These include MOM Brands’ Better Oats Maple & Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal with Flax. The letter shows the front of the box, which has a picture of a bowl of oatmeal and container of syrup, along with the name. Ingredients include whole grain rolled oats, sugar, flaxseed, natural and artificial flavor, salt and caramel color – but no maple syrup.
The letter also displays an image of Madhava Natural Sweeteners Maple Agave Nectar. The word “maple” is prominently displayed on the front of the bottle; however, the product contains only pure organic agave nectar and organic natural flavor. Other products pictured in the petition letter include other oatmeal brands, frozen waffles, an energy gel and an ice cream called Maple Walnut.
According to Commercial Maple Syrup Producers of Michigan (CMSPM) Chair Craig Waldron, owner of Far Hills Maple Syrup in Burt Lake, the practice of using the word “maple” where there is no maple syrup seems to be growing.
“Many associations across maple-growing regions have had some success in promoting the image of pure maple syrup,” he said. “A lot of companies seem to be riding on this image of pure maple syrup. The customer wants their labeling to be accurate.”
He added that companies used to buy a small amount of maple syrup to add into their foods just so they could say there was maple in it; however, now they seem to have dropped even that gesture.
According to the VMSMA, consumer trends show an increasing interest in ingredient awareness and a desire for natural and pure ingredients in food. Vermont maple producers are leading this effort.
Vermont is the “giant in the room” of maple syrup production in the United States, making up 42 percent of U.S. production. Michigan ranks fifth, at 3 percent.
According to figures from CMSPM, the United States imports four times more Canadian maple syrup than the U.S. produces, and Michigan has more potential sugar maple taps than any other state or Canadian province. Michigan uses less than 0.2 percent of its potential maple taps and has almost 3.5 times as many sugar maples than Vermont or Quebec, Canada.