Pour Substitute: Local sugarers concerned about price and purity organize against a not-so-sweet deal | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Pour Substitute: Local sugarers concerned about price and purity organize against a not-so-sweet deal 

Published April 10, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

click to enlarge AGAINST THE FLOW? Shelburne sugarer Steve Palmer would like to see stricter labeling on maple syrup. - JORDAN SILVERMAN
  • Jordan Silverman
  • AGAINST THE FLOW? Shelburne sugarer Steve Palmer would like to see stricter labeling on maple syrup.

The families flocking to Palmer’s Sugarhouse on spring weekends are assured of getting the real thing: 100 percent pure Vermont maple syrup. The sugarbush that rolls across the hills above Steve Palmer’s shop in Shelburne has been a source of the state’s signature product for the past 135 years.

But thousands of other Vermonters and flatlanders who purchase containers of maple syrup with the word “Vermont” on the label aren’t necessarily getting what they think. They’d probably be surprised to learn that what they’re actually buying is syrup made from sap tapped in Quebec. And they’d surely be shocked to know that much of that sap may have seeped from tapholes treated with an illegal pesticide or a poisonous chemical mixture.

The Vermont Department of Agriculture doesn’t seem much concerned that consumers around the world are being misled as to the geographical origin of a product bearing the state’s name. But several Vermont sugarmakers, fearing for their livelihoods, are warning that the state’s permissive maple-syrup labeling policy could undermine Vermont’s image of agricultural integrity.

State officials are more focused on public perception of the pricey product, and how negative news might impact sales. In a recent letter to his counterpart in Canada’s federal government, Vermont Agriculture Commissioner Leon Graves wrote, “Imagine the disaster if the news media informed consumers that a poison was being used in the production of maple syrup.”

In 2000, the latest year for which complete statistics are available, Vermont sugarmakers like Steve Palmer produced a total of 460,000 gallons of maple syrup. That’s more than any other state, but it’s a small fraction of what Quebec producers pipe out of their sugarbushes. The French-speaking province accounts for about 80 percent of the maple syrup marketed worldwide, compared to Vermont’s 5-percent share.

However, most of the roughly four million gallons of syrup made from Quebec sap is processed or packaged annually in Vermont. In 2000, for example, Quebec was the place of origin for more than 95 percent of the 3.2 million gallons of non-Vermont syrup sold by Vermont-based companies. Much of that Quebec syrup is misleadingly labeled to suggest a Vermont origin. In fact, syrup produced from Vermont sugar maples accounts for only about one-seventh of the syrup processed or packaged in the state.

The economics and politics of maple syrup conform to a similar ratio. Vermont’s indigenous crop yielded a market price of $13 million in 2000, while the value of syrup imported to the state from Canada amounted to more than $100 million. It follows, then, that in-state processors and packagers of non-Vermont syrup would wield considerably more political power than do the state’s own sugarmakers.

Vermont agriculture officials are keenly attentive to the interests of the packing and processing industry, says Palmer, who has been trying to mobilize in-state producers to demand stricter labeling standards. “Our voices aren’t heard as loudly,” he laments.

An ag department committee organized to study the labeling issue is dominated by the processing industry, and is thus “worthless,” Palmer charges. Despairing of Montpelier’s attitude, he’s turned to Washington for help. Both the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration have listened “with interest” to the protests of Vermont sugarmakers, Palmer reports, and are now investigating the labeling controversy.

The day is coming, he warns, when less-valued Quebec syrup will force down maple-syrup prices to the point where many of Vermont’s 2000 independent sugarmakers can no longer cover their costs. A gallon of top-grade Quebec syrup in the tank fetches about $16.50, compared to $22 for the Vermont product, estimates Henry Marckres, supervisor of the state ag department’s consumer assurance section.

“The effect of ‘dumping’ millions of gallons of Canadian syrup on the Vermont market has reduced the price that Vermont maple sugarmakers are able to obtain for their product,” Palmer wrote in a 25-page study last year. This disparity “will ultimately result in much lower prices and the eventual disappearance of much of the maple industry in Vermont.”

Dave Folino takes the long view, too. Although the Starksboro sugarmaker sells a quarter of his crop to processors, he is supporting Palmer in his quest for stricter labeling laws and enforcement. “If French wine were actually from Chile, but bottled in France with a French label, consumers would be pissed. If people realize they are being deceived, it’s going to hurt the packers and everyone else in the long term.”

According to Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Louise Calderwood, state regulations require that the word “Vermont,” when part of the name of a packing company, can appear only on the bottom third of a can containing syrup processed in the state but produced elsewhere. Federal law further demands that syrup of Quebec origin must be labeled “Product of Canada.” The term “Vermont Pure” can lawfully be used only for syrup entirely produced in the state, Calderwood notes.

She and Marckres both acknowledge, however, that many maple-syrup purchasers pay no attention to these fine labeling distinctions when grabbing a container of the sweet stuff at the grocery or gift shop. Yet Calderwood insists that Vermont vigilantly monitors the labeling of its most famous product. “It’s an issue we take very seriously,” she says, pointing to the case of a New Hampshire producer who was fined $10,000 three years ago for falsely marketing his syrup as Vermont-made.

Palmer contends, however, that the state is selectively and inadequately enforcing its own labeling standard. He points to a Vermont regulation stating, “No maple syrup may be labeled as being a Vermont product, or labeled in any manner which could imply that the maple syrup was produced in Vermont, unless the maple syrup is 100 percent pure maple syrup which was entirely produced within the state of Vermont…”

One of the largest in-state processors of Quebec syrup conforms to the letter — though perhaps not the spirit — of Vermont’s regulations. Maple Grove Farms of Vermont does display its logo on the bottom third of the front of containers labeled “100% pure MAPLE SYRUP” on top. The notation “Product of USA and Canada” appears in a smaller font on the back. The actual content of the containers is syrup from Quebec mixed with a small amount of syrup from a New England state.

About 95 percent of the 1 million gallons a year processed by his company comes from Quebec, says Steve Jones, general manager of Maple Grove Farms of Vermont. The St. Johnsbury-based processor owns no sugarbush in Vermont.

Maple Grove is a subsidiary of B&G Foods, a New Jersey corporation that last year reported profits of $6 million on sales of $332 million. B&G employs more than 600 workers, including 125 year-round in Vermont. The financial clout of its parent company ensures that Maple Grove Farms of Vermont gets a respectful hearing in Montpelier on issues such as product labeling.

Jones readily concedes that many consumers assume the syrup in the company’s cans was made exclusively from Vermont maple sap. “I don’t think the fact that consumers are misled really hurts anyone,” he reasons, noting that Vermont sugarmakers sell their entire crop every year.

Henry Marckres of the Vermont ag department has a similar view. “All the Vermont syrup that’s produced gets sold, so I don’t fear dumping of Quebec syrup in Vermont.”

Jones adds that he would not be opposed to new state laws or regulations that might clarify the origin of maple syrup “as long as I’m allowed to display my company’s name on the label.”

Springtree Maple Products, another large Vermont-based processor of Quebec syrup, does not use the word “Vermont” on its labels except in small print as part of the company’s address in Brattleboro. Foregoing prominent use of the state’s charismatic name was “probably a conscious decision” on the part of Springtree’s owners, says inventory manager Barbara Nokes. In regard to Vermont’s other large maple-syrup processor, Nokes opines, “If it says ‘Maple Grove Farms of Vermont’ on a label, you would have to assume that the syrup was from Vermont.”

In contrast to their apparently casual attitude about misleading labels on maple syrup, Vermont officials are clearly worried about some Quebec tappers’ use of banned or dangerous substances.

Vermont Agriculture Commissioner Leon Graves last year warned his Quebec counterpart that the state might launch an embargo against maple syrup from the province. Graves cited “currently unsubstantiated” reports that many Quebec maple producers were using paraformaldehyde, a pesticide banned in both Canada and the United States.

The allegations have since been confirmed. Evidence of paraformaldehyde applications was found at 55 percent of the large-scale Quebec maple farms (those with more than 10,000 trees) that were included in a random survey conducted last year by Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency. About one-quarter of smaller producers surveyed were also found to be using the pesticide.

Paraformaldehyde is inserted in tablet form to keep tap holes open and flowing for a few weeks beyond the time they would naturally close. Traces of it are seldom discovered in finished maple syrup because the chemical gets steamed off during the boiling process, says Brian Stowe of the Proctor Maple Research Center in South Burlington. Use of paraformaldehyde on trees thus does not pose a threat to human health, Stowe says.

But researchers have found that application of the pesticide is likely to shorten the productive life of maple trees from 75 to 25 years. Quebecois sugarers who make use of paraformaldehyde, which has been banned in Vermont since 1980, also gain an unfair competitive advantage. The protracted flow enables them to pipe even larger quantities of sap, most of which gets shipped to Vermont.

Quebec officials say they are cracking down on the use of paraformaldehyde. Last year, they note, a company in the province was fined $50,000 for manufacturing the pesticide for maple syrup production. Farmers found to be using it will also be subject to fines, the officials say.

Partly as a result of the threat of stricter enforcement, some Quebec sugarmakers are believed to be turning to denatured alcohol as a substitute for paraformaldehyde. In a Feb. 20 letter to Canadian Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief, Graves noted that the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers is recommending and selling denatured alcohol. This “poisonous product that uses the skull-and-crossbones symbol in product information” may be even more damaging to trees and to users than is paraformaldehyde, Graves told Vanclief.

Denatured alcohol is also not found in finished maple syrup because it evaporates during boiling, Graves acknowledged. But no testing has been done as to its effect on trees, the Vermont commissioner noted. Graves also expressed concern about the safety and health of tappers using denatured alcohol. “Exposure to this type of chemical requires the use of masks, gloves and eye protection,” he said, adding, “It is very unlikely that people tapping trees are following these guidelines.”

Because neither the labeling nor adulteration issues are well known — even in Vermont — the State Legislature has not focused its attention on the likely need for remedial action. But at least one State Senator, Democrat Ginny Lyons of Chitten-den County, is sympathetic to the concerns raised by Steve Palmer and the 150 other Vermont sugarmakers who have signed a petition calling for stricter labeling standards.

Lyons, vice-chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, says she is considering sponsoring a bill to require unambiguous point-of-origin labeling for maple syrup processed or produced in Vermont. “The Vermont name is too important to be jeopardized,” Lyons says. And she agrees that current standards are wholly misleading.

Lyons tells of having breakfast at her sister-in-law’s home in Ohio as a container of syrup with a Maple Grove Farms of Vermont label was being passed around the table. “Oh, look,” Lyons recalls her sister-in-law saying, “we’re having maple syrup from Vermont.”

Lyons ruefully recounts, “I had to point out to her that it was actually from Quebec.”

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About The Author

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley is a contributing writer for Seven Days, Vermont Business Magazine and the daily Nation of Kenya.


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