WASHINGTON – Producers of fake maple syrup aren’t common in Maine — at least not now.

Federal legislation that would dramatically stiffen the penalty for producing fraudulent syrup is meant to keep it that way in a state where the industry is prosperous and growing, say Maine’s U.S. senators and maple syrup makers.

The bill co-authored by Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine would turn a misdemeanor punishable by no more than a year in jail into a felony that could draw as much as five years.

The legislation is backed by GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine and senators from New York, another major maple syrup-producing state. Since Leahy is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the bill appears to have a good chance of advancing toward a Senate vote.

Leahy says he came up with the idea because of a pending federal case involving a Rhode Island man who allegedly sold cane sugar-based syrup as authentic maple syrup. Leahy asked Collins to co-author the bill because of the importance of the maple syrup industry to both of their states.

Maine is the third-largest producer of maple syrup in the country, after Vermont and New York. More than 360,000 gallons were produced this year in Maine, up from 315,000 gallons in 2010, bringing in nearly $11 million.

There are about 350 licensed maple syrup producers in Maine, with about 50 that tap enough sap to fill 40-gallon drums with syrup and market it at the wholesale level, according to the Maine Maple Producers Association.

“Fake labeling not only hurts this growing agricultural industry, but also defrauds consumers who have the right to know exactly what they are purchasing,” Collins said when the legislation was introduced this month.

U.S. Attorney Thomas E. Delahanty from the District of Maine said through a spokesman that he is not aware of any federal cases in Maine involving fraudulent maple syrup and never heard of such a case during his tenure as a Maine Superior Court justice.

There isn’t a problem now with fake syrup being produced or sold in Maine, said Eric Ellis, president of the Maine Maple Producers Association and manager of Maine Maple Products in Madison.

Maine Maple Products processes nearly 30,000 gallons of maple syrup annually, producing 20,000 gallons itself from its production area along the Canadian border and selling most of its product in Maine.

Producing maple syrup is labor-intensive. To get those 20,000 gallons, Maine Maple Products had to tap about 80,000 trees, Ellis said.

Ellis said that while phony Maine maple syrup is “almost non-existent,” the Leahy-Collins bill is a good idea “to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future.”

Snowe said she sees the legislation as a deterrent, too.

“It is vital … to provide the necessary deterrents to ensure Maine’s maple syrup industry is not threatened by individuals who are trying to cheat the system,” Snowe said via email.

Michael Bryant, the owner of Hilltop Boilers in Newfield, said there have been instances of fraudulent maple syrup outside of Maine.

Last year in Maine, he said, producers encountered a problem with syrup that didn’t explicitly claim to be pure maple syrup but had labels and packaging that producers in Vermont and Maine believed falsely gave the appearance of the real thing.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Bryant said of the proposal to increase the penalty for producing fake maple syrup. “If people follow the law, they have nothing to worry about. It’s big money at this point, and the penalties we had in place were not reflecting that. By making the punishment much stricter, that kind of deters people from trying to do things that are not nice and law-abiding.”

The U.S. attorney in Vermont, Tristram Coffin, a former Senate Judiciary Committee aide to Leahy, said, “The maple syrup adulteration problem crops up from time to time” in Vermont.

In 2000, a Vermont man was found guilty of selling, across the country and abroad, 500,000 pounds of what was presented as pure maple sugar but was nothing more than regular cane sugar, according to the Vermont Department of Agriculture. While the man received a 46-month sentence, that was based mainly on charges such as mail and wire fraud.

The charges associated with the actual offense of producing fake maple sugar “were so low that it isn’t something that is equivalent to the gravity of the problem,” Coffin said.

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at:

jriskind@mainetoday.com

Twitter: Twitter.com/MaineTodayDC.