This Obscure Ag Rule Could Hurt Your Favorite Craft Brewery

Breweries have been selling spent grain to livestock farmers for feed for ages—but the FDA is taking issue with the sustainable practice.

Cattle on a farm eat a ration of feed on Aug. 3, 2012, near Cuba, Ill. Farmers in the Midwest and elsewhere continue to struggle after half the counties in the United States have been designated disaster areas, mostly owing to drought conditions throughout the Midwest. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

The Food and Drug Administration is in the middle of a “brewhaha” after proposing a rule that could end the relationship between craft brewers and nearby farmers who rely on spent distilling grains to fatten livestock.

Never mind that this kind of symbiotic relationship between brewers and farmers dates back centuries, or that lingering drought conditions have forced ranchers to sell off herds as the price of feed climbs ever higher. Forget that it’s an efficient way to reduce food waste from breweries that cheaply sell or donate the grain.

Nope. The FDA’s proposed new rule is intended to ensure food safety for animals and food handlers, so it would require that brewers dry and package the used grains before it's fed to livestock. That's a pricey and time-consuming process that’s unlikely to happen. Which means the more than 2,700 small craft brewers—businesses that tend to care about sustainability and thrifty ways to sometimes bring in some extra revenue—around the country may simply decide to dump those used grains instead. 

Are there legitimate concerns over safety hazards when spent distiller grains are fed to livestock? An FDA spokesperson told TakePart in an email that the FDA "[is] unaware of specific contamination events resulting from spent grains relating to the brewing industry" and its goal is to reduce possible hazards.

For Geoff Hess (known as Farmer Geoff) of Oskar Blues Brewery, the second-largest craft brewer in Colorado, the new rule hits especially close to home. In 2010, the brewery started Hops & Heifers Farm as part of its sustainability model. Mash from the brewery is used as a protein supplement for the farm’s pasture-raised cattle, which are then used to feed customers at the company’s five restaurants.

“Our interpretation of the proposed rule is that it would be cost-prohibitive for us to feed the cows the mash. We’d have to dump it completely and not feed it to any of our animals,” said Hess.

The FDA says the proposed rule, which comes under the Food Safety Modernization Act, is meant to address good manufacturing practices regarding food for animals, but it calls out beer makers specifically:

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 proposed rule would apply to them.

Whether or not that will also affect yogurt makers whose whey byproduct is sometimes fed to livestock is unclear.  

Just how much spent grain are we talking here? In 2012, the Beer Institute estimates that American brewers produced 2.7 million tons of spent grain.

“Drying is highly impractical for many breweries, and transporting the grains wet increases brewery efficiencies and greatly reduces capital and energy costs associated with drying,” said Beer Institute President Joe McClain in a letter to the FDA about the proposed rule.

Colorado Sen. Mark Udall says the rule would result in brewers being regulated as commercial animal feed manufacturers. Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King urged the FDA to reconsider yesterday, saying the rule would inevitably limit a source of free, or nearly free, animal feed, resulting in additional costs for the farmers who use spent grains, and would force brewers to identify potential food safety hazards and estimate how likely they are to occur.

The Brewers Association is adamant that there has been no evidence that spent grains create a health hazard, and it says the proposed rule is burdensome.

“Brewers of all sizes must either adhere to new processes, testing requirements, recordkeeping 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,” said the association in a statement.

No word on when the FDA is expected to make a decision on the rule, but we’re hoping that a solution that’s been embraced for this long, and provides real benefits for both farm and brewery, won’t end up in our nation’s landfills instead.

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