OTTAWA — It was an inside job of sorts. Thieves with access to a warehouse and a careful plan loaded up trucks and, over time, made off with $18 million of a valuable commodity.
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The question is what was more unusual: that the commodity in question was maple syrup, or that it came from something called the global strategic maple syrup reserve, run by what amounts to a Canadian cartel.
On Tuesday, the police in Quebec arrested three men in connection with the theft from the warehouse, which is southwest of Quebec City. The authorities are searching for five others suspected of being involved, and law enforcement agencies in other parts of Canada and the United States are trying to recover some of the stolen syrup.
Both the size and the international scope of the theft underscore Quebec’s outsize position in the maple syrup industry.
Depending on the year, the province can produce more than three-quarters of the world’s supply. And its marketing organization appears to have taken some tips from the producers of another valuable liquid commodity when it comes to exploiting market dominance.
“It’s like OPEC,” said Simon Trépanier, acting general manager of the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers. “We’re not producing all the maple syrup in the world. But by producing 70 to 78 percent, we have the ability to adjust the quantity that is in the marketplace.”
Since 1999, Quebec’s maple syrup industry has used a marketing system found in other Canadian agricultural sectors, particularly dairy and poultry.
Put simply, the supply management system sets strict quotas for producers and, in the case of maple syrup, requires them to sell their product through the federation.
The sap that becomes maple syrup after being boiled down often flows for only a short period each spring. Weather changes can introduce wild fluctuations in how much emerges from sugar maple trees.
Strategic syrup reserve?
To maintain stable and high prices, the federation stockpiles every drop its members produce beyond their quota. During bad seasons, it dips into that supply.
“In the States you have the strategic oil reserve,” Mr. Trépanier said, continuing with his petroleum analogy. “Mother Nature is not generous every year, so we have our own global strategic reserve.”
Mr. Trépanier estimates that the reserve now holds 46 million pounds of syrup.
The spring of 2011 produced so much maple syrup that the federation added a third rented warehouse, in an industrial park alongside a busy highway in Saint-Louis-de-Blandford, to accommodate the overflow. The surplus was pasteurized and packed into 16,000 drums, each holding 54 gallons, and left to rest except for inspections twice a year.
Lt. Guy Lapointe of the Sûreté du Québec, the police force that led the investigation, said that the thieves rented another portion of the warehouse for an unrelated business. That enabled them to drive large trucks into the building.
“They were basically inside guys,” Lieutenant Lapointe said. “The leader wasn’t with the federation, but he had access to the warehouse that would not attract any suspicion.”
When no one else was around, Lieutenant Lapointe said, the thieves gradually began emptying syrup barrels. Some Quebec news reports indicated that they also filled some barrels with water to disguise the theft.
Over time, the thieves helped themselves to six million pounds of syrup. Mr. Trépanier said their work was discovered in July, when inspectors found a few empty barrels. The full extent of the theft, he said, became clear once the police arrived.
The police spared no resources. Lieutenant Lapointe said that about 300 people were questioned and 40 search warrants executed. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement service joined the investigation.
Like many thieves, the maple syrup gang was faced with how to unload a large quantity of a commodity that is not easily moved. But unlike most thieves, Lieutenant Lapointe said, they found a way to get full price on the open market.
Because the investigation is continuing, Lieutenant Lapointe declined to describe the resale process in detail. But he did say that the thieves set themselves up as legitimate maple syrup dealers in neighboring New Brunswick, a province with an open, if much smaller, maple syrup industry. From there, they shipped the stolen syrup to buyers in that province as well as in Ontario, Vermont and New Hampshire.
Whatever the arrangement, it was convincing. Lieutenant Lapointe said investigators believed that the buyers were unaware of the syrup’s illicit origins.
Two-thirds of syrup tracked down
The police have tracked down about two-thirds of the stolen syrup and are trying to seize it, particularly a large quantity in the United States, which is the largest buyer of Quebec’s legitimate production. Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the agency was investigating what happened to the syrup after it slipped across the border.
It may be difficult to prove that syrup is stolen property, however.
“Maple syrup doesn’t have a bar code,” Lieutenant Lapointe said. “There’s no way to tell it apart.”
Although the stolen syrup was insured, Mr. Trépanier acknowledged that some of the federation’s 7,400 members were not happy that it allowed six million pounds of syrup to disappear.
Despite the displeasure of members, though, Pascal Thériault, professor of agriculture at McGill University in Montreal, said the future of the federation was secure. While the closed market system restricts the ability of large, commercial syrup producers to expand, the federation’s voting structure means that it is dominated by part-time producers, many of whom are also dairy farmers. They have no interest, Mr. Thériault said, in returning to an open market.
Canada’s supply management systems for other agricultural products, like dairy and poultry, have been protested unsuccessfully for decades by the United States and other countries in trade negotiations.
While the latest theft was a record breaker, it was not the first significant maple syrup theft in the province. In 2006, thieves took about $1.3 million from a stockpile that was the subject of an ownership dispute. Lieutenant Lapointe said that investigation remained open.
This story first appeared in the New York Times under the headline, "In $18 Million Theft, Victim Was a Canadian Maple Syrup Cartel."
Copyright © 2013 The New York Times