What might Maine maple syrup soon have that the venerable Maine lobster doesn’t?

Ironclad brand protection, that’s what.

We begin with the syrup: This week, MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind reported on a bill now in the congressional pipeline that would make it a federal felony to sell fake maple syrup as the real thing.

The so-called “Maple Act” was submitted by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and co-sponsored by, among others, Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.

The measure seeks to turn up the heat on counterfeit syrup – essentially brown, liquefied sugar labeled as “pure maple” – by elevating its sale from a mere misdemeanor punishable by a year in prison to a (gulp) felony punishable by up to five years in the federal slammer.

This despite the fact that such skullduggery, while attempted at least once recently by a scammer in Vermont, has yet to be reported anywhere in Maine.

“To my knowledge, I’m not aware of any cases presently,” confirmed Eric Ellis, president of the Maine Maple Producers Association, in an interview Tuesday. “It’s really a protective measure.”

Still, according to our two esteemed senators, it’s a much-needed safeguard nonetheless.

This week, Snowe called the felony upgrade “vital” and a “necessary deterrent” to maple-syrup fraud.

And Collins noted last month that it would protect both Maine’s maple syrup industry (the nations’s third largest) along with “consumers who have a right to know what they are purchasing.”

Which  brings us to the lobsters – and a sharp-eyed consumer by the name of Leslie Linfield.

Linfield, founder and executive director of the Institute for Financial Literacy in South Portland, was traveling with an associate in Virginia a few weeks back when friends took them out for dinner at an upscale restaurant, Morton’s The Steakhouse.

Scanning the menu,  Linfield noticed “Whole Baked Maine Lobster” listed among the entrees. But when the waiter rolled out the traditional food cart – the national chain likes to show off its main courses before cooking them – Linfield also noticed that the “monster” size crustacean has something printed on the rubber band around its claw.

“I actually had to put on my reading glasses,” she recalled.  “And there it was – ‘Massachusetts’ – printed right on the band.”

Linfield politely informed the waiter that said lobster was not, in fact, from Maine.

Yes, it is, he replied without batting an eye.

She persisted with a more senior waiter who came by later to see if all was well.

“Where are your lobsters from?” asked Linfield.

“All of our lobsters come from Maine,” he replied.

“That bad boy … got pulled out by a boat in Massachusetts,” countered Linfield, noting the telltale rubber band.

Linfield sat back and waited for the waiter’s apology. Instead, she said, “he just dug his heels in.”

Enter fellow diner Bryan Wyatt, Linfield’s communications director. The next day, Wyatt fired up his iPad, logged onto Twitter and sent this message to Morton’s: “I noticed one of your Maine lobsters had Massachusetts printed on its band. Are all your lobsters from away?”

Tweeted back Morton’s: “@leslielinfield @bryanwyatt: Our lobsters are Main Lobsters-can be found on Atlantic coast of NAmerica chiefly from Labrador 2 New Jersey”

Main Lobsters? From the great state of … Main?

“To accommodate the 140 character limit on Twitter, ‘Maine’ was shortened to ‘Main,’ ” explained Sally Shorr, spokeswoman for Morton’s, in an email Tuesday.

Right. Except by my count, the tweet had at least three characters to spare.

Asked if Morton’s, as a matter of policy, actually buys all of its “Main lobsters” in Maine, Shorr said, well, not exactly.

“Maine lobsters are a species, not named after the location where they’re are caught,” she wrote.

Wrong again.

For starters, the species is called “homarus americanus,” or “American lobster.” And according to Dane Somers, executive director of the Maine Lobster Council, the “Maine” label should only apply to those landed on the Maine coast.

In fact, Somers said, Maine’s lobster industry persuaded the Food and Drug Administration a few years back to remove “Maine lobster” from a list of terms considered synonymous with “American lobster” because the listing “went too far” in diluting the Maine brand.

But here’s the rub: When the Maine Lobster Council tried long ago to trademark “Maine lobster,” the federal Patent and Trademark Office said no.

“They said it was a general, geographic term – which they don’t allow,” said Somers.

Meaning there’s currently nothing anyone can do to stop Morton’s from selling “Maine lobsters” regardless of whether they were actually caught in Maine.

Still, maintains Linfield, “Maine has a brand. And it’s a brand worth protecting.”

Linfield, by the way, is an attorney. And she readily admits that when she read this week that Maine maple syrup counterfeiters could  face up to five years in the big house, she did a double take.

“As an attorney, I would say yes, it’s a little stiff,” she said. “But to me it’s the ethics of it … If they can draw up legislation for maple syrup, then why aren’t they passing legislation for Maine lobsters?”

“She’s right – it is the ethics of the situation,” agreed Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “It’s just wrong.”

McCarron, upon reading about the maple syrup bill this week, fired off an email this week to Snowe’s office asking, “Hey, what about us?”

She has yet to hear back.

But in an email late Tuesday from Collins’ office, spokesman Kevin Kelley wrote that Collins agrees “the bottom line is about protecting the integrity of the product. It’s actually another example of why legitimate producers deserve to be protected – whether it’s ‘pure maple syrup’ or ‘Maine lobster.’”

Including those caught in Main.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]