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)

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."

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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.