Seeing maple syrup categorized as a "low-risk" food and so not subject to most of the proposed rules in the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was a relief to many sugar makers. The burdensome set of proposed regulations seems to have been drafted without a clear understanding of what is reasonable for small-scale farms, and we can only hope that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has taken the thousands of comments they received in response to heart and will revise the proposal to reflect what is really needed.
It's always challenging to push back against food safety regulations - nobody wants to be seen as opposed to safe food production practices - but it's important that any oversight of farming reflect the fact that "one-size-fits-all" rules could unfairly encumber small farms and be inappropriate for certain types of food production and processing.
Any food production process holds a certain amount of risk, in that harmful pathogens can be introduced to even an essentially sterile product, such as maple syrup. Producers of dairy, meat and processed foods have a great deal of federal oversight, while maple syrup has had none, although many states do have laws and regulations around sugaring.
For example, Maine has three pages of basic requirements for licensure as a sugar maker, and sugarhouses are inspected by the state. Requirements include:
- There has to be a roof over the evaporator.
- Equipment and utensils need to be "adequate for their intended use."
- You can't use tobacco products in the sugarhouse.
- Tubing has to be cleaned with a 5 percent chlorine solution.
- There must be hand-washing facilities.
For its part, New Hampshire has a voluntary registration program, but being registered doesn't trigger inspections. The state's regulations are largely about labels and adulteration, rather than prescribing certain production practices. Similarly, New York's laws primarily concern grading.
It's no surprise that Vermont, with the largest maple industry in the U.S. and a tremendously valuable brand to protect, has extensive laws and regulations for sugar makers. There are record-keeping requirements, hydrometers must be tested by the state, and the regulations for labeling and bottling are detailed. There are clear instances where sugar makers can be fined, or even have their licenses revoked.
Massachusetts, in contrast, has no laws or regulations governing maple syrup production. The maple industry, however, has stepped up to fill that gap. The Massachusetts Maple Producers Association wrote and published a quality control manual that every member of the association gets a copy of and is encouraged to follow. The association also worked with the state farm bureau chapter and University of Massachusetts Extension staff to publish a best management practices handbook.
In addition, the Massachusetts maple industry has become involved in the state's Commonwealth Quality Program, whereby producers voluntarily submit to a best practices audit and those who meet the standards receive promotional assistance from the state. Vermont sugar makers have established a similar program, where producers can invite an inspector and complete a certification checklist. These programs help make the public aware that steps are being taken to ensure that the safest possible products come from these sugarhouses.
Along with this patchwork of measures from individual states, the maple industry as a whole is an excellent example of how a group of producers can recognize the need for developing best practices and take steps to promote their adoption.
Researchers and practitioners came together to publish the "North American Maple Syrup Producers Manual" and have updated it at least five times in the 50 years since its first publication. The recent process to establish and implement a new grading system has been a collaborative, industry-led initiative. And the North American Maple Syrup Council just granted funds to facilitate the development of a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan for the maple industry.
For their part, sugar makers are well aware of the importance of food safety. Producers are quick to point out that news of a bad batch of syrup made by any single producer will hurt the whole industry, and peer-to-peer learning is largely responsible for how quickly the field propagates improvements in practices and technology designed to make sugar making safer and more efficient.
It's hard to think of any other food production facilities where the owners are so quick to offer up-close tours to customers; sugar makers want people to see how syrup is made, and want to show off how well and how carefully they make it. Knowing their customers, and letting them see the inner workings of their operations, certainly helps sugar makers keep in mind the value of producing products held to exacting standards of safety and quality.
Having all of these protocols in place puts the maple industry in an advantageous position if and when regulators do start looking to have more oversight of the production of maple products. Sugar makers will be able to point out that the industry has already done the regulators' work for them, establishing practices and protocols that have a proven track record of success in ensuring that their products are safe.
Winton Pitcoff is a freelance writer and coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association.