A topic that caught our attention this week was the possible misbranding of products with maple in them. We took testimony from the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association and one very passionate sugar maker from Richmond. It seems that some companies are making products that they label as maple that may have little, or any, real maple sugar/syrup in them.
Having taken testimony on the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering in 2012 and 2013, we are aware that there are strict guidelines, rules, and requirements of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that must be followed in order to be in compliance with proper labeling standards. So how can something that has “MAPLE” in big letters on the front of the product have an ingredient list that has no maple listed? Rather there is language like “Natural and Artificial Flavor”, “Organic Natural Flavor”, and “Natural Flavor”.
While these products are probably labeled properly by FDA standards, there is a Vermont law that requires more detailed information. Vermont Statute Annotated Title 6, Chapter 32 gives the Secretary of Agriculture, Food, and Markets powers to enforce certain provisions. For instance, Section 492 pertains to the labeling that must appear on the container of maple-flavored products. It says “every product or package containing a product made by combining maple sap, maple sugar, or maple syrup with any other sugar or other substance packed, sold, offered, or exposed for sale or distribution by any person in this state shall be plainly marked in accordance with 9 V.S.A., Sec. 2633(c), for packaging and labeling regulations and shall include the following on the principal display panel: 1) an accurate and descriptive name; 2) the net quantity contents declaration; and 3) the amount of maple sugar or maple syrup the product contains expressed in percentage of volume if the product is a liquid or a list of the product ingredients in order of decreasing predominance by weight if the product is a solid. The percentage statement or ingredient list shall be in close proximity to the product name.”
The next time you visit the grocery store, consider looking at some of these labels and decide for yourself if these products comply with Vermont’s maple labeling law. For instance, Quaker Instant Oatmeal comes in a “Maple and Brown Sugar” variety. In subtext it says “Natural & Artificial Flavors” but it gives no indication of the amount of maple sugar or syrup by, in this case, weight. Another Quaker product, Select Starts High Fiber Instant Oatmeal also comes in a “Maple and Brown Sugar” variety with a subtext that says “Naturally & Artificially Flavored” – again no indication of the percentage of maple sugar or syrup in the product.
I don’t mean to pick on Quaker; there are plenty of other “maple” products to look at. Madhava Agave Nectar comes in a Maple flavor that is actually “certified USDA organic”. Its ingredient list includes two items – “Pure Organic Agave Nectar and Organic Natural Flavor”. What exactly is that? Another interesting product is Michele’s Maple and Butter Syrup. There doesn’t seem to be anything that even remotely resembles butter on the ingredient list. When our committee assistant sent an email inquiry as to how much real maple is actually in the product, the answer came from Michele Hoskins herself and we were assured that there was two percent real maple in the bottle, though it’s not indicated as such on the package.
What frustrates the sugar maker from Richmond is that a product he makes competes directly with a product that he contends may contain no pure maple syrup and sells for a third less. Slopeside Syrup makes the “Untapped All Natural Athletic Fuel Maple Waffle Made with Pure Maple Syrup”. Pure maple is the second item on the ingredient list. Sitting next to his product on the shelf is the “Honey Stinger Gluten Free Organic Maple Waffle” with “natural flavor” eighth on the ingredient list.
While the Slopeside Syrup owner definitely values having shelf space in the stores, it frustrates him that the other product sells quicker, perhaps because it is a little cheaper, but is not technically labeled properly according to Vermont law. I would contend, though I haven’t done a taste-test, that the Richmond-made product is more delicious because it is made with real maple syrup. Perhaps, free samples given out in the stores would convince more customers.
All this may seem like business as usual but as a supporter of Vermont-made products, I’d like to think that folks might begin to buy plain oatmeal, instant or regular, and drizzle a little real maple syrup over it. Yes, real maple syrup costs more but a little goes a long way and helps support the Vermont economy.
We did take testimony from the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets and learned that the reason Chapter 32 isn’t enforced is because the Agency doesn’t have the staff to do the job. There was a time a decade or so ago when the staffing level at the Agency was down to 83 employees. With all of our local foods, working lands, and water quality changes that number is back up to over 100 but there just isn’t the personnel to send out the maple “police”.
As a child growing up in New Jersey, real maple syrup wasn’t on our table I’m sorry to say. In fact, I remember my mother making a concoction with sugar, water, and something, if my memory serves me well, called Mapleine, which is apparently still available. I’m thankful that real maple syrup is readily available to us and something, in fact, my husband and I made before I was in the Legislature. I’m proud that one of the spring activities of two of my sons is to tap a few trees and boil with the grandchildren, carrying the tradition on and making memories.