FDA rule threatens grain sharing between brewers, farmers

EVERETT — What beer makers don’t want, farmers do.

It’s those soggy used-up grains, a by-product of the brewing process, that farmers relish as feed for their livestock.

Brewers give the grain away to those willing to pick it up. This practice, considered sustainable and environmentally responsible, has gone on for years without interference from government.

But a federal agency is pondering changes in how animal feed is handled, and brewers, farmers and federal lawmakers are worried it could seriously crimp, or even end, the long-standing practice.

As now written, the proposal drafted by the Food and Drug Administration implies that brewers and distillers would need to completely dry and package their spent grain before giving it to farmers.

“If they pass this it will put a financial burden on a lot of people,” said Shawn Loring, owner of Lazy Boy Brewing in Everett. “It will add costs to the amount of beer that you make and it will have an immediate impact on the price.”

Brewers would need to buy and install driers capable of handling the large volumes of grain used in the beer-making process. And that could force smaller brewers out of business because the equipment is expensive and the power to run them isn’t cheap.

“I can say without hesitation it would be markedly detrimental to have to go the route they talked about,” said Pat Ringe, vice president of brewing operation for Diamond Knot Brewing Co. in Mukilteo.

Brewers, farmers and their allies in Congress have been pushing back on the FDA proposal for several months — and it seems to have worked.

In April, Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, said the agency never intended to target the spent grains in this manner and would issue revised language this summer.

“We agree with those in industry and the sustainability community that the recycling of human food by-products to animal feed contribute substantially to the efficiency and sustainability of our food system and is thus a good thing,” he wrote on the FDA blog April 24. “We have no intention to discourage or disrupt it.

While Taylor’s comments were welcomed, no one will be convinced until they see the new language

“We’re monitoring it,” Ringe said. “Now that we’ve collectively screamed our heads off about it, we’ll see.”

Farmer Forest Hughes of Granite Falls wants the FDA to make it clear the idea is a nonstarter.

“They just need to take it off the table,” he said. “If the system isn’t broke, don’t try to fix it.”

Hughes picks up barrels of spent grain from several brewers and distillers each week including Lazy Boy and Diamond Knot.

“It’s a very good source of feed,” he said.

What he doesn’t use for his livestock, he said he sells to other farmers in order to recoup what he spends making the circuit to pick up the spent grain. If the FDA doesn’t change course, he said, it will mean the loss of an affordable source of grain and a small income stream as well.

Members of Congress are hopeful Taylor’s comments represent the FDA’s intentions.

Yet 54 representatives, including Democratic Reps. Suzan DelBene and Rick Larsen of Washington, sent a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg on May 5 pressing the agency to make sure the revised language steers clear of the brewer-farmer relationship.

“It is imperative that these rules remain focused in their scope and do not attempt to solve food safety problems that do not exist,” federal lawmakers wrote.

DelBene said the letter reflects the concern of lawmakers.

“The final rule isn’t out yet,” she said. “We want to be sure it is going in the right direction.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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