The IMSI standards are not mandatory, but the organization will recommend them for all maple regulatory agencies in the U.S. and Canada. Once the new standard is adopted by the regulatory agency in a particular U.S. state or Canadian province, maple producers and packers will have to comply with the new standard. It will be up to state and province maple regulatory authorities to decide if the new standard will be mandatory or voluntary. Enforcement and compliance will be entirely up to the government regulatory authorities.
The changes encompass the following:
Information compiled from the International Maple Syrup Institute and the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association.
Farming Magazine - June, 2011
International Standards for Maple Syrup
Short-term inconvenience, long-term benefits?
By Marcia Passos Duffy
Do consumers truly understand what all the maple syrup grading lingo means? Even if they are well-versed in the labeling system in their own state, if they travel, say from Maine to New Hampshire to Vermont, they may find unfamiliar words on the bottles such as "fancy" or "cooking grade." If they travel north to Canada, there's a whole other labeling system for the same product ranging from "Extra Light" (also known as AA) to "Amber" (which corresponds to some state's Grade B) to "Dark."
Adding to the confusion, the labels on maple syrup mean different things in the food world - many of which maple syrup producers may not intend. "Light" in the grocery aisle signifies "diet" or "low calorie." "Grade A" often means "a better product," as in Grade A eggs, with the implication that "Grade B" is somehow inferior. It gets even more bewildering when you consider that maple syrup with these labels is being shipped overseas.
"How is 'fancy' translated in Chinese, does it mean something really weird?" wonders Glenn Goodrich of Goodrich's Maple Farm. The Cabot, Vt., maple syrup producer is also vice president of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association. "We need terminology that translates well and helps the consumer know exactly what it is they are buying," says Goodrich.
Enter the International Maple Syrup Institute (IMSI). They are hard at work establishing a single, unified, international definition of "pure maple syrup." The new terminology and grading system aims to reduce confusion and improve communication among consumers, producers, packers and regulators, says Dave Chapeskie, executive director of the Ontario-based IMSI (www.internationalmaplesyrupinsti tute.com).
Chapeskie says that the proposed new grading and classes of maple syrup is more reflective of consumer needs and preferences, and places an emphasis on maple syrup taste (i.e., delicate, strong) as well as color. The proposed classification system (see the accompanying graphic) has four color classes, with descriptions for Grade A pure maple syrup. The IMSI hopes the new classes of maple syrup will keep off-flavored or defective syrups out of the retail marketplace and increase national and international sales of maple syrup.
Does the sugaring community want these changes?
The IMSI represents most U.S. state and Canadian provincial maple producer associations, as well as maple packers and maple research institutions. The decision to revamp the classification system came about based on a comprehensive review of existing maple grades, nomenclature and current regulations in the U.S. and Canada, as well as consumer research findings on maple flavor.
The goal is to provide a single reference for the entire maple industry and its consumers. It also aims to end bias against the darker syrups, which because of its "Grade B" labeling has been equated with an inferior product.
While these revisions are coming down the pike (changes will go into effect starting 2013 and are subject to state regulatory approval), not all maple syrup producers know or understand them yet, says Robyn Pearl, publicist for the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association. The organization has recently created an information packet for their members to bring them up to speed. However, initial feedback about the change has not been positive among members.
"The reaction from many members was one of disapproval," Pearl wrote in an email, and noted that members were also reluctant to change in the 1970s, when the last grading change was proposed and, ultimately, accepted. "Unfortunately, the timing of the presentation [of the IMSI proposal] had not left much time before sugaring season began, so I don't think many people have had time to wrap their heads around it yet," she says.
Steve Roberge, an educator in forest resources for the Cheshire County (N.H.) Cooperative Extension Office, who teaches sugaring workshops for professionals, says that what he's heard from his workshop participants have been a mixed bag of responses. "Change can be scary, but when people learn what it is and realize they can retain their identity and branding they are not so scared of it," he says.
Changes: short-term inconvenience, long-term advantage
"Standardizing maple grades requires change from the status quo," observes IMSI's Chapeskie, who adds that, in general, representatives of state maple producer associations have been in favor of the proposed changes. He adds that the new classes were done under the auspices of a variety of leaders in the U.S. and Canadian maple producer associations, and there have been recommendations for minor tweaking of the proposal before it is moved into regulatory submission.
Chapeskie says it is more difficult for small maple producers to fully appreciate how the changes might benefit them, and some are concerned about the cost and inconvenience associated with equipment and label changes and having to re-educate consumers.
The change will result in some extra work for maple producers, such as purchasing new color classification equipment once the grading system is approved by maple regulatory authorities. In addition, maple producer associations, maple producers and maple packers will need to invest time to learn about the new standard system and educate consumers.
"These factors will cause some short-term inconvenience to maple producers and packers," says Chapeskie. "However, in the long run, the implementation of standard maple syrup grades will present an opportunity for maple producers and packers to educate consumers and ingredient users about the uniqueness of pure maple syrup.
"My personal observation is that early resistance to the proposed changes by some maple producers has dropped as they have an opportunity to digest the merits of the proposal to the maple syrup industry," says Chapeskie.
Will changes benefit the small producer?
Bill Eva of Longview Forest Products, a small maple syrup producer in Hancock, N.H., is a member of the NH Maple Producers Association and a delegate to the IMSI. As a small producer, he understands that the new grading system does not appear, on the surface, to benefit the little guy.
"Maple is a big international item, and the big buyers don't like having to deal with a bunch of grading systems, and in some cases no grading system at all," he says. "For bulk sales, it gets us all on the same footing and talking the same language."
The new grading system, Eva believes, not only benefits the large producers, but the entire industry. "These [new grades] are not being pulled out of a hat. A lot of consumer testing has been done to see what they like and don't like," says Eva.
Goodrich agrees: "It will be less confusing for the consumer - it tries to describe what a class of syrup tastes like and what the consumer can expect from the product."
Change, however, is difficult, particularly for those states like Vermont that have made a name for itself in its "Fancy" maple syrup labels. "We can still use that word, 'fancy,' but now have to add the new standard as well," says Goodrich.
He also agrees that smaller producers will benefit in the long run. Since the bulk of small retailers are marketing a medium amber product, the new grading system will have a wider margin of light transmittance for medium amber, making more of their product sellable to bulk buyers.
On the dark end of the scale, there will be an opportunity to sell the darkest class of syrup (now Grade B or labeled for cooking) as Grade A, rather than a Grade B. "Some of the darkest syrup is fine for cooking or even for direct consumption if someone likes a dark, powerfully flavored, syrup," says Goodrich.
While some of the concerns voiced have been that off-flavors would make it to retail shelves, that will not be the case, says Goodrich. "Any Grade A syrup sold retail - light or dark - can't have any flavor defects," he says.
Yes, the labels will change, and there will be some expense in changing over to the new system, but it will benefit the industry overall.
"Truthfully, people who are truly 'in the know' are confident that, in the long run, this change will be better for the consumer, and that's who we make our products for - the consumer," says Goodrich.
The author is a freelance writer from Keene, N.H.