A Government Fight Over Cow Food Could Make Beer More Expensive

New FDA regulations, which are undergoing a review, could increase the price of beer, milk, and more, critics say.

Herdsmen wearing traditional Bavarian clothes (Lederhosen) shares beer with one of his herd, after the annual cattle drive descent on September 13, 2012 near Oberstdorf, Germany.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
April 22, 2014, 1 a.m.

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment could start to treat some brew­er­ies like live­stock feed man­u­fac­tur­ers — and raise the price of your beer, milk, and oth­er products — in the near fu­ture, thanks to a pro­posed reg­u­la­tion from the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Beer and food for cows would seem to have little in com­mon, but ac­tu­ally for cen­tur­ies — ac­cord­ing to the Beer In­sti­tute, a lob­by­ing group rep­res­ent­ing Amer­ic­an brew­er­ies — many beer-makers have donated or sold at low cost the bar­ley and oth­er grains left over at the end of the brew­ing pro­cess to loc­al farm­ers, to be used as feed for live­stock. These “spent grains,” which have had all of the sug­ars taken out of them dur­ing the brew­ing pro­cess, are a huge source of pro­tein for the an­im­als and would oth­er­wise just be trashed by beer-makers.

The tra­di­tion was cap­tured in this 2009 ad from An­heuser-Busch, which has been re­cyc­ling its grains through dairy farms since 1899. “Hun­dreds of thou­sands of lucky cows are fed with our grains,” pro­cessing man­ager Jeremy No­lan says in the ad over im­ages of ap­par­ently happy cattle, be­fore adding this little zinger: “You know what they call feed-time at the farm? Happy hour.”

Re­cently, the re­cyc­ling prac­tice has taken cen­ter stage in a fight between mem­bers of Con­gress, brew­ers, farm­ers, and the FDA.

As the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion works to pro­act­ively pre­vent food-borne ill­nesses in hu­mans and an­im­als, the FDA is push­ing new safety reg­u­la­tions on brew­er­ies who give their spent grains to farm­ers. The rule falls un­der the FDA Food Safety Mod­ern­iz­a­tion Act, which Pres­id­ent Obama signed back in 2011.

There’s just one prob­lem, crit­ics say: There is no evid­ence link­ing spent grains with food pois­on­ing, either for an­im­als or hu­mans.

“I don’t know everything about beer, but I know if a fed­er­al agency’s had one too many,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., quipped in a phone in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al on Monday.

Wyden and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who co­chair the Con­gres­sion­al Small Brew­ers Caucus, sent a let­ter to the FDA earli­er this month, ur­ging the agency to change the rule which, they warn, “would be oner­ous, costly, and even waste­ful.”

The reg­u­la­tion could be so ex­pens­ive for brew­ers, the sen­at­ors and oth­er crit­ics ar­gue, that it would be more cost-ef­fect­ive for the brew­er­ies to dump the byproduct in land­fills, po­ten­tially caus­ing en­vir­on­ment­al and fin­an­cial harms. “This his­tor­ic­ally stand­ard prac­tice provides nu­tri­tious sil­age for an­im­als and saves the brew­ers from hav­ing to pay for ex­pens­ive dis­pos­al in land­fills, many of which are already over­flow­ing,” Wyden and Murkowski wrote in their let­ter to the FDA.

But it’s not just brew­ers and farm­ers who should worry, Wyden said, not­ing that “thou­sands” of jobs from field­work­ers to wait­resses are par­tially de­pend­ent on the spent grain re­la­tion­ship. Wyden said he has heard about the is­sue at nearly every stop he’s made in Ore­gon over the 10-day con­gres­sion­al re­cess so far. “It’s a very big eco­nom­ic mul­ti­pli­er,” Wyden said. “People are just sort of baffled about what the gov­ern­ment is do­ing here.”

The costs for small farm­ers and small brew­ers, in par­tic­u­lar, could be pro­hib­it­ive. Wyden said that he’s heard from sev­er­al Ore­gon farm­ers who warned that they would have to cease op­er­a­tions if forced to buy new feed at-cost un­der the new rule, while lar­ger out­fits may have to raise the price of milk.

The of­fice of Sen. Chuck Schu­mer, D-N.Y., mean­while, warned that the new reg­u­la­tions for brew­ers — which would re­quire them to con­duct a series of tests and stud­ies on the grains and de­vel­op a re­call plan — would be “un­ne­ces­sary and bur­den­some giv­en the lack of any doc­u­mented health risk to hu­mans or an­im­als.” The Beer In­sti­tute es­tim­ates that the new rules will cost a typ­ic­al do­mest­ic brew­er $13.6 mil­lion per year to im­ple­ment.

Chris Thorne, a spokes­man for the Beer In­sti­tute, ar­gued that brew­ers are at this mo­ment “either meet­ing or ex­ceed­ing” stand­ard grain reg­u­la­tions and that the new FDA rules would be in many cases du­plic­at­ive. After all, the grains in­volved in the brew­ing pro­cess are already ap­proved for hu­man con­sump­tion, he said. “This is really a solu­tion in search of a prob­lem,” Thorne said.

At a House Budget Com­mit­tee hear­ing with FDA Com­mis­sion­er Mar­garet Ham­burg last month, a vis­ibly skep­tic­al Rep. Chel­lie Pin­gree, D-Maine, made a sim­il­ar ar­gu­ment. “I’m not really sure how we can say that these grains are good enough to pro­duce something for hu­man con­sump­tion and then on the oth­er side, it’s not safe enough to feed a cow. And it’s very hard to ex­plain this to my con­stitu­ents or my dairy farm­ers,” Pin­gree said.

The FDA seems to be buy­ing that ar­gu­ment and will re­lease an al­tern­at­ive ver­sion of the reg­u­la­tions this sum­mer. Com­mis­sion­er Ham­burg said that once the new pro­pos­al is open for com­ments later this year, the FDA would work to take those con­cerns in­to ac­count. “We cer­tainly un­der­stand why it makes eco­nom­ic and sus­tain­able ag­ri­cul­ture sense to look to­wards these kind of ap­proaches…. I hope that we can find a mean­ing­ful, vi­able solu­tion,” Ham­burg said.

The FDA ac­know­ledges that there is no evid­ence of the spent grains lead­ing to ill­ness, but the de­part­ment is work­ing to ad­dress a lar­ger is­sue of how the grains are handled between the brew­ery and the farm. The reg­u­la­tions will also ap­ply to oth­er types of an­im­al feed, in­clud­ing pet food, which can in­clude cook­ies, burri­tos, green beans, Dor­i­tos, and oth­er vari­ous chips that have been dis­carded by man­u­fac­tur­ers to en­sure that they’re prop­erly handled to avoid dan­ger­ous con­tam­in­a­tion.

“FDA’s cur­rent un­der­stand­ing is that the po­ten­tial haz­ards as­so­ci­ated with spent grains from brew­ers and dis­til­lers are min­im­al.”¦ We ex­pect brew­ers and dis­til­lers to take reas­on­able meas­ures to pro­tect food for an­im­als from chem­ic­al and phys­ic­al haz­ards, and will ad­dress the is­sue in forth­com­ing re­pro­pos­als,” the agency said in a state­ment.

Thorne said that the Beer In­sti­tute’s con­ver­sa­tions with the FDA have been largely pos­it­ive and that they’re hope­ful for a good out­come for brew­ers and farm­ers alike. “We’ve had con­ver­sa­tions with FDA and we are cau­tiously op­tim­ist­ic that we’re go­ing to see an amended rule this sum­mer that’s go­ing to con­tin­ue to al­low us to mar­ket these grains,” he said.

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