What: New FDA regulation on the distribution of spent grain in breweries
When: Went into effect Feb. 26th
Pros: Somewhat safer livestock feed
Cons: Greater waste in landfills, potential environmental impact
I usually try to keep Beer Banter about fun things–brews, parties, events. Nobody wants to come to this column for serious politics or geopolitical shenanigans. So I hope you’ll excuse me writing about a somewhat dry topic. A friend of mine who runs Boulder Creek Brewery in Southern California brought something to my attention this week that I felt needed more press than it’s been getting–the FDA crackdown on spent grain. I realize I’m somewhat behind the times here, as the new rule went into effect over a month ago, but upon discovering it, I’ve been trying to get the word out as best I can.
I mentioned in passing in my article on Unite Pale that Pikes Peak Brewery gives its spent grains to farmers in Larksburg in order to reduce waste. To elaborate on this somewhat, during the brewing process, the initial mash-in extracts the naturally occurring sugars in malted barley and other grains. This sugary liquid is then flavored with hops and other additives while the grains themselves are scooped out of the mash tun as waste.
Fortunately, the mashing process only deprives this grain of its sugars, leaving behind the proteins and fiber. This makes it an ideal supplement for agricultural applications, the foremost of which being livestock feed. I’m not a scientist, but by my understanding, the mashing process makes the proteins more easily digestible, which makes it an ideal food supplement for dairy cattle, growing cattle, some pigs, and a variety of other livestock, helping add to the protein load in their system.
It’s also noteworthy that spent grains present an environmental hazard if not disposed of quickly. To quote my source: “Fresh brewers grains left on the ground outside the brewery spoil quickly and can become a source of environmental nuisances, including water pollution. Using brewers grains as animal feed alleviates the environmental impact of the brewing process.”[i] As a result of this potential hazard, spent grains have to be composted[ii] before they can be effectively used as a fertilizer. This extra step in processing is no doubt why most are used as supplemental livestock feed. (For more on the benefits of spent grain for livest0ck, there’s an article here that has some good information.)
The FDA has passed a rule which may prevent this cooperative agreement between brewers and farmers from happening. The new rule states that, animal feed not prepackaged to prevent direct human contact cannot be given directly to farmers. The rule specifically addresses brewers, stating:
“FDA understands that many breweries and distilleries sell spent grains, such as brewers dried grains and distillers dried grains, as animal food. Because those spent grains are not alcoholic beverages themselves, and they are not in a prepackaged form that prevents any direct human contact with the food, the Agency tentatively concludes that subpart C of this proposed rule would apply to them.”
Therefore, rather than brewers bringing their spent grains directly to farmers or farmers picking them up from brewers, there would have to be a system of checks and rechecks put in place in order to protect this contamination, including prepackaging. On the surface, this seems to make sense–nobody wants to poison our livestock. The issue arises when it’s pointed out that, as per Chris Thorne of the Beer Institute, “There has never been a single reported negative incident with spent grain.”[iii]
The other side of the issue is the massive increased cost to small brewers. The Brewer’s association has come out against the new rule, stating:
“The current rule proposal represents an unwarranted burden for all brewers…The proposed FDA rules on animal feed could lead to significantly increased costs and disruption in the handling of spent grain. Brewers of all sizes must either adhere to new processes, testing requirements, record-keeping and other regulatory requirements or send their spent grain to landfills, wasting a reliable food source for farm animals and triggering a significant economic and environmental cost.”
And this, I feel, is the greatest and most detrimental impact of the new FDA rule. Put simply, it makes it more difficult for brewers to stay green by raising the cost of an environmental mindset. Rather than trusting professional brewers to choose quality grains and handle the byproduct responsibly, and professional farmers to inspect their feed before giving it to livestock, an unnecessary amount of checks and rechecks have to be put in place that will be too expensive for many brewers to implement, resulting in more waste in landfills. This seems a high price to pay considering that the old system hasn’t resulted in any reported negative effects.
I’m not calling for an end to all FDA inspections. That would open an entire kettle of fish that I’m not in any way qualified to discuss. What I do know, however, is that it’s not possible to inspect every last little thing, and this new rule smacks of regulation nobody wanted in the first place. No crisis has happened to make it necessary. No rowdy herd of drunken cows have run amok across the Colorado countryside, causing people to call for this regulation. It honestly seems to be happening primarily because the FDA exists and has to do things.
Senator Mark Udall has come forward, urging for leniency from the FDA regarding the new rule. As reported by the Northern Colorado Business Report, he’s said “I am urging the FDA to swiftly complete a risk assessment of brewers’ uses of spent grains as a cost-effective and safe livestock feed. When brewers succeed, so do countless other businesses and sectors of our economy.” Considering the amount of support craft brewers are getting on this issue, the rule is far from final. Ideally, some gray area between the newly proposed rule and the old system can be found that will satisfy the FDA while limiting or eliminated costs to brewers.
Photos by Karen Heun and Camille Breslin