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Subhead: Should be ready when the sap runs in the spring

Madison — Rules related to the grading and production of maple syrup have received final approval at the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and should be fully in place by the time the sap begins to rise in the spring.
Several of the rule changes were made at the request of the maple syrup industry to harmonize Wisconsin’s maple syrup grade standards with new standards set by the federal government and adopted by several leading maple syrup production states.
            The rule – in the food safety division – also touches on the ways in which maple sap producers can concentrate that product into maple syrup. The now-approved final rule establishes terminology and processing requirements for a range of new products related to maple syrup.
            Wisconsin ranks fourth in the nation in maple sap production. In 2014 Wisconsin maple syrup producers made 200,000 gallons with an approximate value of $10 million, according to DATCP records.
            Maple syrup grades provide the common basis to describe maple syrup for wholesale and retail markets but prior to the newly passed rule Wisconsin had not updated its grade standards since 1980. Since that time many producers have upgraded their systems to include reverse osmosis filtration to process sap and added new production methods.
            Grades are currently established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec and several states, including Wisconsin.
            In a report to the DATCP board, Steve Ingham, administrator of the Division of Food and Recreational Safety, said that his staff expect the new grade standards to have only a positive economic impact on Wisconsin’s maple syrup industry. Use of a common, international grading system will make it easier for the state’s maple syrup producers to sell their product in interstate and international markets.
            The new rule also defines a standard for when producers can use a “Wisconsin-produced” designation on their containers of syrup, which may help build a brand and may assist them in marketing their product.
            Ingham explained that the rule revisions are to sections of ATCP 70 (food processing plants) and ATCP 87 (rules on honey and maple syrup.)  Hearings were held in Wausau, Menomonie, LaCrosse and Madison. “Hearing attendance was the highest for a division rules hearing that I’ve observed in my time at DATCP,” Ingham said. “The many comments we received were carefully thought out, well presented and very helpful.
            “This is a fascinating world. I encourage you to get out and meet these people,” he told ag board members as they heard his report on the rule revisions.
            One commenter even provided samples of high-, mid-, and sub-standard quality maple syrup so DATCP staffers would understand the opinion of many in the industry that syrup grading should be mandatory.
            Mandatory grading was one of the things the department explored in this rule change. “The revision of Wisconsin’s grade standards for maple syrup proved to be a complicated topic,” Ingham said. “Grades provide a common language of commerce which allows food manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers and consumers to understand the characteristics of what they are buying or selling.”


Grading affects value


            Key factors that affect the grade and selling price include color, clarity and flavor. “Ideally, grade standards for maple syrup would be based on these attributes. People liked the standards and wanted them to be mandatory,” Ingham said. “They reason that if a consumer has a bad experience, they’ll never buy it again and will comment about it on social media.”
            Wisconsin first adopted maple syrup grades in 1956 and current standards were based on USDA color standards from 1950. Until 2015, the current version of Wisconsin’s standards were voluntary and mirrored USDA standards. Then USDA upgraded its standards in 2015, a move that was championed by the International Maple Syrup Institute, a non-profit organization representing maple syrup producers in the United States and Canada.
            Ingham said that many members of the Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Association were in favor of mandatory grading for all producers, regardless of size, with the belief that this would keep sub-standard maple syrup out of the marketplace.
            Based on the tasting that was made possible by the producers, Ingham said that the lower quality syrup could potentially turn consumers off. Still, there were a number of Wisconsin producers who were opposed to mandatory grading. They believed it would cost them more for new labels, for tools to do the grading and could encroach on their production practices.
            In the end the rule provides for mandatory grading for syrup produced and sold by businesses holding a Wisconsin food processing plant license. Businesses not holding this type of state license would have three options: grade the syrup and state the grade on the label; label it as ungraded; or make no mention of grading on the label.
            Ingham explained that if color and flavor are used in the labeling, that label must indicate the grade of the syrup or state that it is ungraded.


Made in Wisconsin


            Maple syrup producers in the state also expressed a desire to set limits on the use of the term “Wisconsin” as part of the grade indication on the label, he said. “It was felt that syrup made elsewhere should not be eligible for the Wisconsin geographic designation on the label.
            “We agreed with this premise,” he said, “as applied at the level of syrup manufacture, but felt it was impractical to apply it at the level of sap collection.” That’s a part of the process that isn’t subject to the department’s licensing and inspection. “The revised rule indicates restrictions on the use of the geographic indicator ‘Wisconsin’ and defines when maple syrup may be labeled as ‘bottled in Wisconsin’ or ‘packaged in Wisconsin’.”
            Ingham said a second objective of the revised rule was to clearly indicate the requirements for facilities that are only used to boil sap into syrup. “We started calling them sugar shacks, but quickly found that producers didn’t like that term,” he said.
            Sugar houses are often rustic facilities in remote locations and a wide range of materials may be used to construct these buildings, not all of which are typically allowed in other types of licensed food processing plants, he said.
            “The revised rule reflects our current thinking that sanitary conditions related to construction of a licensed facility are much more critical when maple syrup processing steps are done – like bottling,” he said.
            The revised rule also allows long-term continuous operation of “thermal concentration equipment” as daily cleaning and sanitizing would disrupt the process.
            The rule also looked at covering these heated tanks, but producers pointed out that covering a tank dramatically slows the cooling of the sap and can result in off-flavors. It also hinders the close observation necessary for effective process control, he said.
            Filters used later in the process are used to catch anything that shouldn’t have gotten into the tank.


Food allergens


            The industry also asked that the revised rule prohibit the use of anti-foaming agents that contain major food allergens.
            The new rule also addressed the broad range of products associated with maple syrup production. Various “maple water” beverages are being marketed, which include pasteurized non-concentrated maple sap and water removed from sap by reverse osmosis.
            Labeling and regulating these products has been controversial in other states, said Ingham, but Wisconsin’s new rule adopted terminology for these new products. One of the terms utilized in the rule is “maple-derived water” to describe water removed from sap by reverse osmosis.
            Processing of maple sap water and maple-derived water must be done in licensed facilities that comply with the department’s food processing plant rules.
            Next steps for the rule involve transmitting it to the governor and lawmakers for review before publication and adoption.

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