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Maple legislation seeks to expand markets

MONTPELIER — Rising maple syrup production in Vermont is sending more sugarmakers across state lines seeking new buyers for their product.
Now, sugarmakers also are looking to Montpelier as legislators debate a bill that the Vermont Maple Sugarmaker’s Association says would make Vermont syrup more marketable on national and international markets. The bill, which passed the Senate and is now in the House Agriculture Committee, would change syrup labeling laws and establish a food safety certification program for sugarmakers.
Sam Cutting Jr., owner of Ferrisburgh’s Dakin Farm and chairman of the Vermont Maple Industry Council, said the voluntary certification system in particular would help sugarmakers in Vermont stay competitive.
The new certification would be administered by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, cost producers a fee between $300 and $500 (the certification would remain valid for a number of years) and involve a safety inspection of equipment and processes at the sugarhouse. It would be primarily for those sugarmakers who sell their product to a larger-scale maple syrup packager.
“There’s a real need, because up until this year there’s been a very large (Vermont) crop,” said Cutting. “If we don’t have this type of certification, buyers may look out of state.”
Just over the border, Quebec sugarmakers already have a quality assurance certification program.
Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, said last week that he still has some questions about the certification program as it stands. He said he’s not sure about administering a certification program through the Agency of Agriculture.
“It’s already in the conflicting role of development and enforcement,” said Stevens. “I’m not sure that the ag agency is disinterested.”
But he said that it’s not a bad idea to establish a proactive certification in addition to the existing system of quality checks after the maple products have been produced.
The bill would also alter the maple grading system from the current one, established in the 1980s — fancy, Grade A medium, Grade A dark and Grade B — to one that describes flavor and appearance — Golden, Amber, Dark and Very Dark. The four would all fall within the Grade A definition.
The new grading system would bring Vermont in line with the system approved by the International Maple Syrup Institute, which has proposed these changes to regulatory agencies in the United States and Canada by the 2013 sugaring season. Stevens said the USDA has agreed to adopt the new grading system as soon as one state adopts it.
Cutting said the proposed new definitions would help clarify the different types of syrup for consumers, since they also include taste descriptors like “strong” (for Very Dark) and “delicate” (for Golden).
Stevens said a key point for him is that the old system of grading wouldn’t have to be thrown out entirely — sugarmakers would only have one more piece of information to add to their existing labels.
Some sugarmakers, said Cutting, have misgivings about conforming to an international system, and about changing an existing system that they say is perfectly good. But Cutting said this offers more clarification for those unfamiliar with syrup type.
“People wouldn’t buy Grade B meat, but that’s one of the most popular types of syrup,” said Cutting. “We need to sell our syrup all over the world, and be clear to consumers what the grades actually mean.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andrea@addisonindependent

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