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USDA Revises Maple Syrup Grading Standards

Vermont maple syrup jugs
WAMC/Pat Bradley

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is adopting new grading standards for maple syrup to match international standards. Maple producers say it’s needed so that consumers have a better understanding of what they are buying.

The International Maple Syrup Institute petitioned the federal agriculture agency in September 2011 asking for revisions in the national standards for maple syrup grades.  The institute represents maple producers, maple equipment manufacturers, organizations, and other groups involved in maple production in the U.S. and Canada.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced on Wednesday that the maple grading standards will be revised to match international standards effective March 2nd.  
Vermont Maple Sugarmakers’ Association Executive Director Matt Gordon.  “The whole effort to get a unified system throughout North America has been driven by the fact that we just felt as an industry we needed to have a single system rather than all the fraction along state or provincial lines. So it’s good to see them getting on board.”

New York State Maple Producers Association Executive Director Helen Thomas explains that most producers and producing states have been working for years to create a single international standard.  “What we’re trying to do with maple syrup is make it consistent. When you buy a bottle here or you buy a bottle in New Brunswick, Canada the description will be the same so the customer understands what they’re getting. What we’re trying to do is not compete with each other. What  we’re trying to do is differentiate between pure maple syrup, which is a gourmet product, and the artificial sweeteners that are out everywhere in the marketplace. So the description will help us assure that the customer understands what they’re buying and has learned the difference in taste.”

The Grade A classification changes will include four new color and flavor classes ranging from golden color and delicate taste to very dark and strong taste. Grade B is now a processing grade for commercial uses.
Both New York and Vermont have already implemented the new grading standards. Vermont’s was effective January 1st, 2014 and New York was effective January 1st, 2015. In New York, Helen Thomas says they began working with regulatory agencies about three years ago.  “Our producers had quite a bit of time to prepare for this transition. Similarly, the only other state that has currently adopted is Vermont. They started their transition in January 2014 and have a three year transition period.  Ours is a one year transition period. We’ll be about the same place at the end of 2015.”

Matt Gordon reports that the transition in Vermont to the new grading system has been relatively smooth.  “We’ve heard really positive things from consumers. The most difficult part has been retraining ourselves. We’ve been living with the existing grades for 30 odd years and it’s been  somewhat funny to see us all start to struggle to remember what grade is what now.  But consumers seem to love it.”

Gordon adds that the positive reaction from consumers should help drive more sales.  “It will really help to simplify things. And that flavor descriptor is really important for us. It allows the consumer to understand what the syrup tastes like just by the grade name itself.”
Helen Thomas adds  “The International Maple Syrup Institute did quite a bit of market research before they proposed this final system. The study results I saw showed that over a four year time period customers that were using the new terminology, because they did have a couple of locations that they actually set this up, the sales in those locations did increase more significantly than they did in locations that were still using  the old terminology.”

The new USDA maple syrup standards are in today’s edition of the Federal Register.

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