Bye-Bye Grade B: USDA Adopts International Maple Grading System
In 2014, the state of Vermont, the number one producer of maple syrup in the United States, began using a new maple syrup grading system developed by the International Maple Syrup Institute.
It did away with Grade B and Fancy, instead making all syrups grade A, adding flavor and color descriptors like delicate, rich and robust.
While the system was intended to put all producers on the same system, Vermont was still alone, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture had not adopted the system. Some states use the USDA grading system, others had agreed to make the change, but only when the USDA rules changed.
On Wednesday, the agency adopted the grading system. That means U.S. producers are all on the same system, said Matt Gordon, executive director of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association, adding that New Hampshire adopted the system last December, and Maine's conversion to the new system was contingent of the USDA and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency adopting it.
"Vermont has always historically been a leader in the maple industry, so it was in some ways fitting that we were the first ones to adopt this," Gordon said. "It would have been nice in some ways if we all had rolled out at the same time, but with so many regulatory bodies having a play in this, it was awfully difficult to align everything with the same date. "
Canada is the world leader in maple production, and they have not fully given up their number 1 and 2 grading system yet.
"Canada's a lot like the United States, in that there's federal regulation, through the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, like our USDA, and then several provinces have their own law, much like Vermont does. Quebec and Ontario are now working through this process. And I believe they're looking at probably a two year phase in for the new grades," Gordon explained.
The change was driven in large part by taste. Consumers appear to prefer dark syrup, formerly known as Grade B, a designation which conveyed inferiority. "We've seen a real interest in the dark, strongly flavored syrups using a system that downgraded that by calling it Grade B, just didn't make sense anymore," Gordon said, noting that the former grading system went into place when maple syrup was a substitute for cane sugar, which was rare in the northeast.
Gordon thinks the new flavor descriptors will help grow the market for maple syrup, as it's now competing with table syrup, or high fructose corn syrup, with maple flavoring.
"To get more people using maple syrup we were finding consumers outside the traditional maple belt were just unfamiliar with what maple syrup was and particularly with the grades we use to describe it. They didn't know what a fancy tasted like or a medium amber. It just didn't mean anything to them," he said. "So being able to add just a little bit of description is really a big help and we've had really positive feedback from consumers."
The new names and having a unified grading system will help the industry sell the maple syrup, based on its purity as a pure maple product, Gordon said.
Gordon said the changes are hardest on the industry and for producers to remember the new names. "We're retraining generations of knowledge here."