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Attempt to harmonize maple syrup categories faces jurisdiction quagmire

Trees at Gereli Farm in Shefford, Quebec, are tapped on April 9. The syrup is used to make Remonte-Pente syrup.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

It's as Canadian as maple syrup, you say? That just depends. Are we talking about Canadian Grade A, or Quebec No. 1?

Ottawa will publish new proposed regulations Saturday aimed at one day harmonizing the many categories of North American maple syrup, but a 10,000-word impact analysis of the new rules and a glance at provincial regulations show how even this iconic Canadian food descends into tortured questions of jurisdiction.

For now, the slow drip of government involvement has left a confusing goop of regulations.

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Casual users may not even be aware that maple syrup comes in many shades, ranging from the common, simple and sweet "extra light" (in Quebec, at least) to a more robustly maple-flavoured (and, some say, superior) amber and molasses-coloured "dark."

Ontario and Quebec – the latter of which already regulates most of Canada's maple syrup – put it into two categories: one for consumption (pouring over pancakes) and another for industrial use adding sweetness and flavour to processed food. They then categorize by colour.

In the past, the federal government has cultivated confusion in the small part of the industry it regulates, naming the most popular (but less tasty) light-coloured syrup Canada No. 1, turning amber syrup into the lamentably inaccurate Canada No. 2. Dark syrup is called Canada No. 3.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz announced new rules Friday that would categorize French-toast-ready, high-quality syrup as Canada A, and then break it down by four colour categories, saying the rules harmonize the definition and grading system in Canada and the United States. The new federal colours add a bit of marketing flair: Golden Delicate, Amber Rich, Dark Robust and Very Dark Strong.

However, 97 per cent of the industry is regulated provincially, with Quebec, which produces most of the world's maple syrup, the dominant player. An impact analysis signed by Canadian Food Inspection Agency official Luc Rivard notes the provinces have already expressed some reluctance over the "subjectivity of the taste descriptors."

"The intent is to have these proposed amendments in place at both the federal and provincial levels to ensure harmonization," wrote Mr. Rivard, who is director of consumer protection and market fairness at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. "Harmonization of grade names and standards, as intended by this regulatory proposal, would facilitate trade between Canada and the United States and provide consumers with clearer label information."

The U.S. is revising its own rules to call table syrup USA Grade A and use similar colours as Canada. Vermont, Maine and New York are at various stages of harmonizing their rules along the same lines, the report notes.

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It remains to be seen if Quebec No. 1 will eventually become Canada Grade A.

Officials from the Ontario and Quebec maple syrup producers' federations could not be reached Friday. The impact analysis says they "are monitoring the government of Canada's proposal."

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