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Senators John Kerry and Scott Brown and Representative William Keating lead just-launched ‘Cranberry Caucus’

WASHINGTON -- A congressional “Cranberry Caucus” was launched Wednesday, with Massachusetts Senators John Kerry and Scott Brown, and Representative William Keating serving as co-chairs, to help promote the industry and help lobby for exemptions from food-labeling rules that could depict cranberry products as unhealthy.

At first blush, the effort might be dismissed as trivial. But the Bay State’s $50 million cranberry industry is the Commonwealth’s largest food crop and employs more than 5,000 people.

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For years, the industry has touted the nutritional and health values of cranberries -- full of Vitamin C and antioxidants -- creating a boom in consumer demand, beyond Thanksgiving sauces. But industry officials worry that the push for stricter labeling laws intended to combat sugary beverages could harm cranberry growers and the food companies they support.

“Over the past few years, there has been a significant increase in efforts to vilify products with added sugar, including sugar-sweetened beverages,” an industry statement said.

In recent years, Congress has considered a national tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, as well as prohibiting schools from serving drinks that are not labeled as 100 percent juice.

“Cranberry juice is being lumped in with other products and soft drinks,” when it’s in a unique category of its own, said Keating, whose district has some of the country’s most productive cranberry bogs.

Pure, unsweetened cranberry juice is too tart for mass consumption, which means the fruit requires an infusion of sugar to make it palatable.

“The caucus will serve as a platform to educate members of Congress, their staffs, and federal agencies about cranberry production in Massachusetts and across the United States,” according to a joint statement released by the two senators and Bay State representatives Jim McGovern and William Keating, who are also members of the caucus.

The caucus is intended to address industry issues surrounding nutrition, the environment, and trade.

Kerry, at a press conference launching the caucus, lauded the health benefits of the fruit, saying that it has properties that reduce urinary tract infections. He also said the caucus would promote jobs and boost the economy.

Brown noted that he sprinkles dried cranberries on his morning cereal, and showed pictures of himself working at a Bay State bog.

Both said they would reach out to the first lady, Michelle Obama, to make her better aware of the healthy properties of cranberries. Obama has made nutrition her cause as first lady.

Other beverage compainies, however, have said that exempting cranberry beverage producers from labeling rules could give it unfair marketing advantage.

Massachusetts was once the country’s largest grower of cranberries, but has since been overtaken by Wisconsin. Members of Wisconsin’s congressinal delegation are also part of the caucus.

Bobby Caina Calvan can be reached at bobby.calvan@globe.com. Follow him on twitter @GlobeCalvan.
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