AG calls on feds to change rule that could sour syrup industry

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TJ Donovan
Attorney General TJ Donovan, center, talks about new FDA maple syrup labelling guidelines at Slopeside Syrup in Richmond. Photo by Xander Landen/VTDigger

Vermont’s Attorney General is urging the Food and Drug Administration to change a proposed rule that would require producers of pure syrup to put “added sugar” labels on their products.

The rule, which would go into effect in January of 2020 for some producers, has been widely derided as a misleading regulation that could harm Vermont’s hallmark maple syrup industry.

Under the proposal, nutritional labels on pure maple syrup bottles will state that sugar in the product is “added,” even though producers do not use additional sweeteners.

Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan plans on asking the FDA to exempt pure maple syrup and honey, another product which would require the new labels despite all of the sugar being part of the natural product.

“The sugar makers of Vermont support transparent labeling. But to add this language about added sugar will absolutely confuse the customer,” Donovan told reporters Monday. “It’s bad for business, it’s bad for the industry and it’s bad for Vermont.”

Donovan has already written a letter to FDA Administrator Scott Gottlieb outlining how the rule could be changed to accomodate the industry.

If the FDA does not exempt maple producers, Donovan is asking the FDA to allow producers to declare the amount of “total sugar” in their product in lieu of a label that would refer to an amount of “added sugar.” Another option he suggests would be allowing producers to say the amount of added sugar is zero, or “not applicable.”

maple syrup
Vermont Grade A Medium Amber maple syrup for sale in a Vermont gift shop. Photo by Raffi Asdourian/Creative Commons

Vermont is the nation’s leading producer of pure maple syrup and industry members are concerned the new labels will scare off consumers.

“If it’s included, it’ll be confusing and I think it would depress sales,” said Dave Folino, the co-owner of Hillsboro Sugarworks in Bristol.

“Maple syrup is a high value product that commands a price premium in the market,” said Roger Brown, of Slopeside Syrup in Richmond. “When consumers think there’s something added to it, it’s going to erode that perception.”

Brown believes that with the new labeling requirement, the pure maple syrup industry wll lose customers to artificial syrups which are cheaper and manufactured with low-cost sweeteners like corn syrup.

Last month, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Congressman Peter Welch, D-Vt., slammed the FDA’s proposal and said they were encouraging the agency to drop the labeling requirement.

But despite mounting pressure from politicians, the FDA is not considering exempting these products from the regulation, according to Deborah Kotz, a spokeswoman for the department.

The FDA is pushing for all food products in the U.S. to comply with stricter sugar labeling standards. The “added sugar” labels are supposed to help consumers understand the amount of sugar they’re eating in excess of nutritional guidelines.
“Pure (100%) honey, pure (100%) maple syrup… contribute to the Daily Value of added sugars whether added by consumers to foods (e.g., maple syrup poured over pancakes; sugar added to cranberry juice to increase palatability) or consumed in isolation (e.g., a spoonful of honey),” the draft guidance of the FDA rule says.

The FDA says it is addressing the industry’s concerns over the proposed rule by giving manufacturers of pure maple syrup and pure honey the discretion to put an obelisk symbol “immediately after the added sugars percent Daily Value information” on the label.

The symbol “would direct consumers to truthful and non-misleading statements on the package outside the Nutrition Facts label.” Manufacturers could use statements to explain that no sugar or sweetener was added to the pure honey or pure maple syrup.

Brown and Folino said they’d like to see the labels indicate the amount of sugar in syrup serving sizes, but scrap the “added sugar” language.

“We want to be transparent and we want to be clear. That’s confusing and that’s unclear,” Folino said of the proposed label.

The FDA is accepting public comments on the proposed regulation through June 15.

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