Last Updated Jan 25, 2011 9:36 PM EST
(***Update: In a settlement with Vermont authorities, McDonald's has said it will start on Feb 1 offering its customers real maple syrup with their oatmeal -- if they happen to live in Vermont.)
State officials in Vermont have taken notice that McDonald's (MCD) is not actually using real maple in its new oatmeal, a violation of state laws designed to protect Vermont's esteemed maple syrup producers. As a result, McDonald's is probably going to need to change the way they label their oatmeal, possibly quietly dropping 'maple' altogether or amending its ingredients to acknowledge that it's using fake maple flavor.
Kelly Loftus, spokesperson for Vermont's Agency of Agriculture, says that McDonald's has been "extremely cooperative" and that the agency is waiting to hear back from the company on how they intend to handle the matter. Vermont's nine pages of maple laws says that no manufacturer can use the word 'maple' unless they're using real maple syrup. Even the term 'maple flavored' can only be used when "100% of the flavoring material is a pure maple product."
This law, of course, only applies within the state of Vermont -- the largest maple syrup producer in the U.S. -- but it's not cost effective for companies to tailor their packaging or marketing just for products sold within one state. Especially when that state is as small as Vermont.
This action from the tree sap state comes amid an environment of increased scrutiny over truth in food labeling. The FTC has recently gone after Dannon's Activia yogurt, Nestle's Boost Kid Essentials drink and POM Wonderful for deceptive health claims. And the FDA is busy trying to revamp regulations governing what can appear on the front of food packages. In order to avoid having to go back to the marketing and packaging drawing board, food companies would be wise to take a cautious approach to labeling and health claims.
Running afoul of maple laws is a comparatively small infraction, but McDonald's should have known that this could be a problem. In the fall, Vermont went after Pinnacle Foods for its new "all natural" Log Cabin pancake syrup, a product that's basically flavored sugar and has nothing to do with maple syrup. Pinnacle isn't using the word 'maple,' but has packaged the product to trick consumers into thinking they're buying the real thing. The company got a letter from Vermont, but didn't actually change anything because it was already in compliance with Vermont's law requiring disclosure of the amount of maple used, in this case 4%.
McDonald's says McOatmeal gets its maple-ness from "natural maple flavor with other natural flavor (plant source)" and it's likely that this is coming from an extract of fenugreek, a plant whose seeds impart the flavor of maple. While it's natural, it's not real maple syrup, which comes from the sap of maple trees and is a whole lot more expensive. But how many McDonald's customers have time to bother with this distinction. My guess is many of them probably see 'maple' and 'natural' and assume they're getting some maple syrup in their oatmeal. Much to the annoyance of real maple syrup producers.