A proposed regulation by the Food and Drug Administration could put an end to a decades-old business relationship between farmers and brewers, and raise the price of beer in the process.
For about as long as farmers have required a supply of feed for their livestock, they’ve relied on spent grain—malted barley, wheat, rye, and other cereals that have been stripped of their sugar content—from breweries. It's a cheap source of nutrition for cattle, and something even humans can enjoy. Some clever homebrewers actually use spent grain to make cookies, muffins, and other baked goods.
It’s also a perfectly symbiotic relationship: Farmers receive a cheap (sometimes even free) source of livestock feed, and breweries are relieved of the responsibility of disposing of the grain themselves. According to the Beer Institute, 90 percent of the 3 million tons of spent grain produced by breweries goes directly to farmers.
“It’s one of those rare things that’s been a win-win for livestock producers and the beverage industry,” Tami Kerr, director of the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association, told the Oregonian.
But now, a proposed FDA regulation could put an end to this relationship—or, at the very least, saddle breweries with costly regulations and facility upgrades. According to the new rules, all businesses that produce livestock feed would be required to have written plans identifying potential health hazards associated with their feed, and specifying steps to prevent such risks.
The law is actually already in effect among traditional feed providers, but the proposal would strip breweries of a longstanding exemption. Essentially, it would require them to dry and repackage spent grain before shipping it off to farmers.
“That would be cost prohibitive,” Scott Mennen, vice president of brewery operations at Widmer Brothers Brewing, told the Oregonian. “Most brewers would have to put this material in a landfill.”
Whether brewers go along with the regulations or simply opt to trash the spent grain, the rules would almost certainly raise beer prices for consumers. Some speculate it would also inflate costs for farmers, which would likely translate into pricier meat and dairy products at your local supermarket.
So why is the FDA doing this? The proposal is part of a massive push to curb foodborne illness. According to the FDA, records produced by all feed providers would assist investigators in the event of an outbreak, and help trace pathogens back to their source in the supply chain. It's all part of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, signed by President Obama back in 2011.
However, critics point out that there is exactly zero evidence linking spent grain with food poisoning, and the FDA even acknowledges as much.
Even so, there's some solid logic behind the FDA’s efforts. The mash process that produces spent grain occurs before the boiling stage, which means it's never sterilized. The mash stage does involve high temperatures—usually in the range of 150 to 165 degrees—but it’s far from a guarantee of pathogen-free feed. With that in mind, it doesn't seem so unreasonable to ask breweries to sanitize spent grain before shipping it to farmers.
Still, the most important factor is actually time, not temperature. The amount of time that passes between the mash stage and the consumption of the grain by livestock determines the extent to which the feed becomes contaminated. Animal immune systems can handle a few pathogens here and there, but if the grain is left out in the air for several days, the likelihood of infection increases dramatically.
And as it turns out, brewers and farmers have a stellar track record of minimizing those kind of risks. As the FDA readily admits, there is no known instance of foodborne illness in livestock as a result of spent grain contamination. Add to that the perfect harmony of the existing business relationship between farmers and brewers, and it's hard to understand why such a proposal is worth the FDA's time and resources.
What do you think? Is this a problem in search of a solution, or do breweries really need to sanitize their spent grain?
Photos: Flickr user, "Jinx!" (CC BY-SA 2.0)