Ethical Eating

Beer Geeks and Farmers Take on FDA and Win (for Now)

For those into local and sustainable farming and food production, the FDA is akin to a bullying older sibling always trying to suppress your desire to express your creativity -- actually, it's more like the big brother who sits on your head and farts in your face.

Earlier this year, the FDA proposed a ruling that would have dramatically increased the cost of beer. The agency was going to attempt to regulate (or prohibit) the centuries-old practice of trading and selling spent grain between breweries and farmers under the Food Safety Modernization Act -- it's the same piece of legislation that threatened artisanal cheese just a couple of months back.

Just like the cheeseheads and producers, craft beer geeks and farmers fought back, prompting the FDA to lay off its ruling.

See Also: FDA Backs Down After Cheese-Heads Fight Back

Six time immemorial, farmers and brewers have happily exchanged spent grains (basically, beer's leftovers); brewers got rid of unwanted waste while farmers received high-protein feed for cattle. In April, the FDA declared that this could no longer be the case due to new rules included in that pesky Food Safety Modernization Act.

According to the Brewers Association, the proposed ban would have led to increased costs for both the farmers and the brewers.

The current rule proposal represents an unwarranted burden for all brewers. Many of the more than 2,700 small and independent craft breweries that operate throughout the United States provide spent grain to local farms for use as animal feed. 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, 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.

Like breweries throughout the country, local brewers follow the age-old practice of trading grains with farmers.

"We give our grains to a local farmer who uses them for a variety of livestock," says marketing director John Linn. "It's pretty much a necessity for a brewery, otherwise you're trying to dispose of thousands of pounds of spent grain a week. Grain goes bad really quick and attracts all sorts of pests, so it's really a win-win. We get it removed from the property for free and the farmer gets feed for free. Not to mention it's so much more sustainable and green to have it be used as food for animals rather than rotting in a landfill somewhere."

Obviously, people were livid -- no one wants to shell out even more cash on beer and beef -- which led to a major backlash from consumers and the industries affected.

The people won this time, but it looks as though the FDA's "preventive" food safety measures are going to keep rearing their annoying little heads for quite some time.

While huge food production companies (Kraft, and the likes) would feel little if any affect, these proposed measures would drastically affect the artisanal market, comprised mostly of small businesses.

Even so, mass beer producers would have felt the pinch from the spent grain rule had it gone through.

According to an article by Modern Farmer, Steve Rockwell, director of procurement and brewing materials at MillerCoors, claimed their breweries have been selling spent grain to farms since its inception, without any reports of human illness attributed to the grain.

"Each of our breweries, on average, ships between 7 to 16 truckloads of spent grain to local dairy and feedlot operations, on almost all occasions the grains are consumed within 24 hours. It's a mutually beneficial relationship for all involved," he told the publication.

In response to the adverse response, the FDA clarified its earlier statements claiming it had no intention to enact burdensome rulings on brewers:

We also believe the potential for any animal safety hazard to result from this practice is minimal, provided the food manufacturer takes common sense steps to minimize the possibility of glass, motor oil or other similar hazards being inadvertently introduced, such as if scraps for animal feed were held in the same dumpster used for floor sweepings and industrial waste.

We understand how the language we used in our proposed rule could lead to the misperception that we are proposing to require human food manufacturers to establish separate animal feed safety plans and controls to cover their by-products, but it was never our intent to do so. In fact, we invited comment on practical ways to address by-products in keeping with their minimal potential risk.

It's slated to provide a final ruling later this summer.

Stay tuned for details.

Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.

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Sara Ventiera