Companies & Industries

The great Canadian maple syrup heist

A sweet industry’s dark side.

(Ilustration: Miles Donovan)

Editor’s note: Reporter Tim Shufelt appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and spoke about the Great Canadian Maple Syrup Heist. Watch the segment.

Two weeks after police raided his business, Etienne St. Pierre agreed to take a lie-detector test. In the office of a Montreal polygraph examiner, St. Pierre sat in a specialized chair with sensors under his legs and feet that monitored his muscle movements. A cuff was placed around his arm to measure his blood pressure and heart rate. Tubes around his chest and abdomen traced his breathing patterns. Electrodes on his fingers detected sweating. “It didn’t make me nervous, because I have nothing to hide,” St. Pierre says, insisting he played no part in one of the strangest and most spectacular heists in Canadian history. Quebec police clearly thought otherwise, having already seized the contents of his warehouse in rural New Brunswick before escorting the materials out of the province by guarded convoy.

John Galianos, a 25-year veteran of the Sûreté du Québec and now a private polygraph expert, says he warned St. Pierre: “If you lie to me about anything, if you know who stole this, if you have any involvement at all and you don’t tell me about it, you’re going to flunk your test.” Galianos asked a series of “diagnostic” questions to calibrate the machine and ensure each sensor was transmitting biometric data to his computer monitor. At last, Galianos got to the point. “Did you conspire with anyone to steal maple syrup belonging to the federation?”

The Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers made news around the world when it announced in August that thousands of barrels of maple syrup had been stolen from its reserves in Saint-Louis-de-Blandford, southeast of Trois-Rivières. “I was in Europe when it happened, and I even heard about it in England,” says Ray Bonenberg, who has a 1,400-tap sugar bush in the Ottawa Valley. That the loot was something so stereotypically Canadian piqued global interest in the “sticky-fingered thieves,” as nearly every article put it. Jesse James meets Bob and Doug McKenzie. Even more amusing was the realization that the Quebec maple syrup industry maintains a “global strategic reserve” in much the same way that countries keep mass stockpiles of oil or grain. It was all so delightfully Canuck.

As the novelty faded, the scale of the crime set in. The federation estimates that up to 2.7 million kilograms, or some 10,000 barrels have disappeared, representing more than 10% of the federation’s vast reserves held in four different facilities. That stolen quantity has a market value of about $20 million in bulk sales (retail value would be much higher). “It’s puzzling how you can steal that much syrup,” says Antoine Aylwin, a partner at Fasken Martineau in Montreal who represents some Quebec maple syrup producers who have run afoul of the federation. Moving that kind of volume would require more than 100 heavy truckloads. “To me, that’s not an outside job.”

The mystery of the missing maple syrup is aggravating an industry already in turmoil. As Quebec has risen to become by far the world’s leading producer of maple syrup, the federation has evolved into a powerful marketing board with almost absolute control over the provincial industry. Aside from small retail containers at roadside stands, farmers’ markets and the like, all Quebec maple syrup must pass through the federation, which dictates how much each producer can sell, and penalizes unauthorized production and selling. A faction of dissenting producers that defy the federation and supply the black market, when caught, are often fined severely. St. Pierre, a New Brunswick–based exporter of maple products, has flouted the federation’s authority for years by buying black-market maple syrup from Quebec producers. But he says he had nothing to do with the robbery. Police officers arrived on his property on Sept. 26 with a search warrant and took from his warehouse almost 700 barrels, which he planned to sell to buyers in Europe and the United States for more than $1 million. He said police even took his forklift, scales, syrup grading instruments and computer records. “They cleaned the building.”

The federation has no sympathy for producers who complain the industry is too restrictive and the fines too punitive. It’s only through the enforcement of tight regulations that the federation says it can impose stability on the maple syrup industry, which is no easy feat when dealing with a highly variable commodity. The harvest is only about six weeks long, in March and April, when the change of seasons offers just the right mix of cool nights and warm days to force sap to flow through the sugar maple tree. Weather variations can curtail production significantly. Warm temperatures last spring, for example, reduced maple syrup output by 32% in the United States this year. Bumper crops are just as disruptive.

The federation was first conceived as a professional syndicate in the 1960s to represent and advocate for producers. Wild fluctuations in maple syrup yield year to year pressed the need for some form of collective production and selling. In 2000, Quebec produced 41 million kilograms of maple syrup, more than a 30% increase over the previous year. Prices plunged accordingly. Producers agreed to transform the federation into a marketing board to negotiate better terms of sale. That year, the federation also began storing overproduction in reserve to smooth out annual variations in the syrup harvest. But another good year in 2003 flooded the reserves, and the industry then decided to impose quotas to limit excess production. Critics now reserve a special contempt for the way the federation oversees the quota system. The industry has become “way too restrictive,” says Hans Mercier, a lawyer in Saint-Georges, the heart of maple syrup country in the Chaudière-Appalaches region. “And I would say it’s getting worse.”

Each of Quebec’s 8,000 bulk syrup producers is allowed to sell up to 75% of the average of its best two years of production. Beyond that, excess output must be transferred to the federation’s reserve. Producers are not paid until the excess is sold, which could take years, especially considering the reserves now contain more than 20 million kilograms. All bulk sales must go through the federation, which charges a fee of about 26¢ per kilogram. Buyers must be accredited, and out-of-province buyers must have a warehouse in Quebec. Producers can either abide by the federation’s rules and quotas or risk being punished by the Régie des marchés agricoles et alimentaires du Québec, the tribunal governing the province’s collective agricultural industries like chicken and dairy. Some of the province’s larger producers complain that quotas have crippled their businesses and reduced the value of their properties. Mercier says the federation is demonizing producers who simply want to make and sell maple syrup. “The more harsh you are, the more you stimulate a black market,” he says.

The controlled system has succeeded in stabilizing production while keeping prices high and steady, argues Simon Trépanier, assistant director of the federation. Authorized producers receive advances on their quota production. And the federation can effectively negotiate favourable prices with powerful buyers like grocery store chains. He says black-market producers exploit that stability while avoiding paying the federation its cut. “The people who are not happy with the system, they are very happy with the price.” Trépanier pegs the dissenters as nothing more than a loud minority. “They’re not much, but they’re organized, they have lawyers, and they’re trying to destabilize the system.”

The federation aggressively pursues offenders, who are brought before the quasi-judicial régie. Any producer choosing to sell directly to an out-of-province customer can face stiff fines, which accumulate for every drop of unauthorized maple syrup. Penalties have reached in excess of $1 million for single producers or unauthorized buyers.

Trépanier likens those repeat offenders to habitual speeders who accumulate traffic tickets for years. In most cases, offenders knowingly broke the rules, he says. “And in the end they say, ‘I’m a poor producer, and I’m being fined more than $500,000, and I can’t live with that.’”

One New Brunswick purchaser, Henri Bourgoin, found himself the subject of a seven-figure fine for illegally buying 150,000 kilograms of maple syrup from nine Quebec producers. “It’s almost more profitable for them to issue fines than to sell the syrup,” Mercier says. When Bourgoin fought the penalties, a Quebec judge ruled that the régie did not have the power to levy fines at all. The Quebec legislature quickly closed that loophole.

Not only does the federation have the support of the provincial government, but also the allegiance of the régie, Mercier says. The great majority of the tribunal’s rulings favour the federation, he says. It’s a self-sustaining system through which the federation tightens its grip on the industry. Mercier is now representing a group of disenchanted producers in a constitutional challenge on the federation’s rules. “These producers, they don’t believe in the system anymore,” he says. “We’re nearing civil disobedience.”

Étienne St. Pierre has never been afraid to provoke the federation. As a resident of Kedgwick, N.B., 25 kilometres south of the nearest point of the Quebec border, St. Pierre says he is under no obligation to abide by the Quebec provincial rules or limit his purchases to authorized producers. A few years ago, he ran a series of advertisements in Quebec, inviting maple syrup producers to sell directly to him. “I did it because maple syrup is not a drug.” A condiment shouldn’t be treated as contraband, he says. His ad campaign didn’t go over well with the federation. “He’s not allowed to buy maple syrup in Quebec,” Trépanier says. The regulations aren’t arbitrary, he explains. By selling only to accredited buyers through Quebec warehouses, the federation can inspect every single one of the more than 150,000 to 200,000 barrels of maple syrup it sells every year. When St. Pierre buys on the black market, “there is no inspection. The guy inspecting the maple syrup is Mr. St. Pierre himself,” Trépanier says. The global cachet of the Quebec brand relies on strict quality control and demonstration of origin, says Bonenberg, the Ottawa-area producer and president of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association. “The industry spends quite a bit of energy on traceability—the chain of custody,” he says. “If it’s not traceable, a lot of sellers and packers are apprehensive about that.”

St. Pierre says he’s been scapegoated by the federation, which he offers as a possible explanation for the recent seizure of maple syrup from his warehouse. As the search warrant remains sealed, he’s unaware exactly why he was targeted. The polygraph test was his lawyer’s idea. The results of the three-hour examination could prove helpful in getting access to the search warrant, says Sarto Landry, a lawyer in Quebec City. “He passed the test easily,” Landry says.

Since then, the Sûreté du Québec conducted a second raid on another warehouse, this time in Lévis, just across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City, taking away an undisclosed number of barrels of maple syrup. All of the confiscated syrup is now being held as evidence in a facility owned by the federation in Laurierville. But it will be difficult to link the seized syrup to the robbery.

The warehouse in Saint-Louis-de-Blandford, one of four where the federation maintains its global strategic reserves, was meant to be just a temporary home. The federation was preparing to move the 4.5 million kilograms of maple syrup it held there to a new facility in Laurierville when a routine inspection revealed that most of the stockpile was gone. The original barrels remained intact, and at least some of them had been filled with water to cover up the heist. The thieves had siphoned the syrup into other containers “in view of illegal distribution,” the federation said. Each barrel of maple syrup is labelled with a bar code indicating its quality, colour and sugar content. Once removed from those barrels, the stolen syrup could be impossible to trace.

The sheer logistics of the crime are baffling. In addition to removing the 10,000 barrels, the thieves would have needed time to transfer the syrup from one container to another, all from a facility that is supposed to be locked, secure, monitored. This was no one-night caper, but a criminal feat that would have required a considerable amount of organization and time to pull off, Mercier says. “How can it go on that long with nobody noticing?” And this isn’t the first such incident, he adds. In 2006, a facility holding maple syrup in Scott-Jonction was robbed of 1,000 barrels worth $1.3 million. That syrup was never found, and the crime was never solved, although the federation said the loss was covered by insurance.

The federation says it was not in possession of the syrup stolen in 2006. It had belonged to a sales agency, partially controlled by the federation, that dissolved around 1999. Similarly, the federation says it was not responsible for security at the facility it rented in Saint-Louis-de-Blandford—the site most recently burglarized. Trépanier couldn’t say how often inventory was checked. But often enough to promptly discover the facility had been robbed, he says. “Obviously, it worked, because we realized suddenly that there was some maple syrup missing.” The federation says all of its inventory is fully insured. “I’m eager to see what the insurance company will do,” Mercier says. “I don’t think they’ll just write a $20-million cheque.”

It’s also unclear how it would be possible for the thieves to unload 2.7 million kilograms of illicit maple syrup. Some say trying to sell it in Canada would draw too much attention and that it is most likely destined for international markets. “I’d be very surprised if they were actually able to cross the border with it,” argues Sylvain Charlebois, a food-policy researcher at the University of Guelph. “It’s a liquid, and you need a manifest, which indicates the product is safe. You need to show the origins of the product.”

After the 2006 theft, some of the federation’s directors suggested in a Radio-Canada interview that embittered industry workers may have been behind the crime. At the time, groups of producers were mired in court and regulatory battles with the federation. There have been many more since. But the black market and the occasional robbery may simply be the byproducts of a system of industry control that keeps prices artificially high, Charlebois says. “Maple syrup is expensive. As soon as you bring up the price of any commodity, you’re going to increase the chances of things like this happening.”

Quebec wasn’t always the Saudi Arabia of maple syrup. Until the 1940s, the United States was the dominant producer of maple products, most of which was boiled down to maple sugar. As cane sugar took over the market, U.S. maple production declined steadily throughout the 20th century. But there always existed, particularly in Quebec, a history and culture around the sugar maple. Even with the rise of cane sugar, maple syrup production in Quebec remained fairly steady. When the industry made advances in production techniques—such as vacuum tubing systems to gather sap and reverse osmosis processes which reduced the energy and time required to concentrate it—Quebec’s syrup production capacity rose dramatically, especially during the 1980s and 1990s. Now the province controls around 75% of the global flow of maple syrup, which represents an industry in excess of $400 million in annual sales. Maine is the second-leading jurisdiction, accounting for less than 10% of world production. “Quebec’s so dominant that all the others are in the shade,” says Stephen Page, a maple-and-honey-sector specialist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Still, much of world remains oblivious to the magic of maple. “Outside of eastern North America, there’s a lack of cultural awareness of maple syrup,” Bonenberg says. The federation’s campaign to push maple syrup into new markets demonstrates the product’s global promise. Japan now accounts for more than 10% of Canada’s maple syrup exports. More than mere pancake topping, global dietary trends favour maple syrup as an alternative to other sweeteners, Bonenberg says. He’s convinced the industry is on the cusp of a major uptake. If the world discovers an appetite for maple syrup, there is only Quebec to meet the demand. There are no alternative sources.

But Quebec’s factious maple sector raises concerns for its suitability in realizing that potential. “Supply management really is a deterrent to innovation.” Charlebois says. “For any newcomers who want to get involved in maple syrup, you have to adhere to very strict rules.” St. Pierre says he’ll continue to ignore those rules. And he’ll keep buying maple syrup from Quebec’s scofflaw producers. “I will never stop. I didn’t steal nothing.” He has rented another forklift and purchased a new scale to replace the confiscated equipment being held as evidence 500 kilometres away in Laurierville, along with the barrels of maple syrup police took from him. He’ll get that back too, he says, when police fail to link it to the robbery.

If many producers were already questioning the value of the system of quotas and reserves, the heist has further shaken confidence in the regime, Mercier says. “That theft isn’t good for anybody.” The federation itself admits that if the stolen syrup hits the market, it could weaken the industry. But it can’t be blamed for the theft, Trépanier says. “We’re talking about very well-organized robbers.” Some criminals, he says, are just too good.