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‘Truth in maple syrup’ bill goes after corny substitutes in Wisconsin restaurants

The bill would ban restaurants from describing a condiment as 'maple syrup' if it's not the real thing

Lyle Merrifield/AP Photo

Wisconsin restaurants would be forbidden from saying they serve maple syrup if it’s not the real thing under a bipartisan proposal being debated in the state Legislature.

It’s a bid to promote a key Wisconsin agricultural product while also better informing consumers, said the bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison.

“I love brunch, like any good Wisconsinite,” she said at a recent hearing of the Assembly Committee on Jobs, Economy and Small Business Development. “And the only possible sweet condiment that you can have for brunch is real Wisconsin maple syrup if you want it to be good.”

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An amber substance that’s anything but 100 percent pure maple syrup — such as those derived primarily from corn or containing additives — could still be bought and sold under the bill, but it would have to be called something else, Roys said.

Maintaining “truth in maple syrup” would support the Wisconsin maple industry, which is the fourth largest in the country, she argued. Wisconsin produces about 300,000 gallons of syrup a year, according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension.

Theresa Baroun, who directs the Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers, said the proposal would support both producers and consumers.

“It’s really for people knowing what they are getting served on their pancakes,” she said.

And Roys argued that maple could one day be as much a part of the Wisconsin brand as its famous cheese.

“If you say you’re from Wisconsin, people know a couple things about you,” she said. “They know we’re the dairy state, they know we make great cheese, and I’d like them to know that we make the best maple syrup as well.”

Proposal follows other efforts for Wisconsin dairy products

Wisconsin has a long history of legislating around protecting its most beloved agricultural products.

A set of century-old butter regulations still on the books require a customer in a Wisconsin restaurant to ask for margarine by name if they’d prefer it to dairy butter. Employees of schools or prisons must provide butter unless a person’s health requires a substitute. Violators of these rules could — technically — face jail time.

In Washington, D.C., Sen. Tammy Baldwin is pushing another proposal to clarify how Wisconsin’s food products get labeled. The “Dairy Pride” bill would prevent plant-based dairy alternatives from being called things like milk or cheese.

But while that would involve enforcement by the federal Food and Drug Administration, the maple syrup bill is relatively toothless. It contains no penalties for violators — which helped it skirt opposition from restaurant industry groups, Roys said.

“The great thing about this bill is that it doesn’t impinge on anybody’s freedom,” she said. “If you want to choose a pathetic, sad substitute for your brunch, you are absolutely welcome to do that.”

“All we’re saying is that if a restaurant is going to say ‘maple syrup,’ it’s got to be maple syrup,” she added.