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Maple Syrup 'Cartel': Federation Of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers


Canada exports a liquid that is about 25 times more expensive than oil. Like oil, it's in a tightly controlled market run by a group that resembles a cartel. There are strategic reserves, and someone managed to stage a heist from these reserves, stealing millions of dollars' worth of this precious liquid. Rich Cohen writes about this crime caper in the latest issue of Vanity Fair. And, Mr. Cohen, end the suspense. What is the product we're talking about here?

RICHARD COHEN: It is delicious maple syrup.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Can you just explain why maple syrup would be 25 times more expensive than crude oil?

COHEN: There is a - sort of an organization called FPAQ. It's the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers. It's often compared to OPEC.

SHAPIRO: OPEC, oil cartel. Yeah.

COHEN: Yeah. They've created a similar quota system on the maple syrup that comes from the trees in Quebec.

SHAPIRO: So Quebec makes around three-quarters of the world's maple syrup. And it's controlled by this group, the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, which operates a global strategic maple syrup reserve. You visited this place. It's where the heist unfolded. What does it look like?

COHEN: I was imagining giant open vats of maple syrup with the surface encrusted in flies and bugs, and it turns out it's very sanitary and very orderly and very Canadian.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

COHEN: It's white, 600-pound barrels of maple syrup stacked floor-to-ceiling about 20 feet high in this almost huge industrial space in the middle of Quebec.

SHAPIRO: So you write that in 2012, some of these barrels were no longer full of syrup. And I love this quote from your piece. You say it felt less like a crime than a prank - what you might do to your brother if you are all-powerful, and he had a lot of syrup. How did the thieves pull it off?

COHEN: Well, like every great crime, you need an inside guy. And they were able to come in at night, take barrels out, bring them to a different facility and siphon it off the way you'd siphon gas out of a semi-truck.

SHAPIRO: I'm imagining somebody, like, sucking on a tube. And when the maple syrup starts coming through, they dump it into the empty barrel, and the maple syrup just flows.

COHEN: You know, it's much better. If you get a little gasoline in your mouth, that's bad, but a little maple syrup - it's not so bad.


COHEN: So they basically filled their own barrels, and they shipped it out to where - the other lands in New Brunswick and across the border in Vermont where the syrup is free. There's no tight controls. And the amount they took is astronomical because they took 10,000 barrels of syrup.

SHAPIRO: Not all at once - over time.

COHEN: No. Slowly, night by night by night, like great crimes, like the Johnny Cash song where he steals a Cadillac one piece at a time.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

COHEN: You know, 540,000 gallons of maple syrup. It's just - yes, it's a crime, and it's bad, but some part of you goes - wow, that's kind of admirable. It's unbelievable.

SHAPIRO: How much is that worth?

COHEN: I think the street value, a term I like to use...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

COHEN: ...Is $13.4 million.

SHAPIRO: How do you launder this maple syrup? Are people selling it in a dark alley out of an artisanal jug?

COHEN: Well, it's funny 'cause I remember at one point Colin Powell kept saying oil is a fungible commodity, and I didn't know what that was. And what it means is basically once it's out in the world, you can't really tell where it comes from exactly. You can sell it. And the same is true with maple syrup.

SHAPIRO: Canada's law enforcement did this massive investigation, recovered a lot of the maple syrup, arrested several men. Many pleaded guilty, but not the alleged ringleaders. And you write that one of the alleged ringleaders who was set to go on trial next month could get 14 years in prison. And then you add - but that's in Canadian, so you're not exactly sure (laughter).

COHEN: Well, I'd always try to get the Canadian quarters to go on the Coke machine, and it never worked, so I realize I'm out of my element.

SHAPIRO: Like any good crime story, this one comes with a final plot twist, which is that American maple syrup production is booming. Do you think the U.S. could actually undermine Canada's ironclad grip on this global industry?

COHEN: Absolutely. There's been a boom in production, really, from New York state, which has three times more maple trees than all of Quebec combined. And that could ultimately take the market away from Quebec.

SHAPIRO: That's Rich Cohen. He writes for Vanity Fair, and his article is called "Inside Quebec's Great Multimillion Dollar Maple Syrup Heist." Thanks a lot.

COHEN: Thanks, Ari. Really fun to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.