A symbiosis in peril?

Proposed federal rule would hurt beer brewers, ranchers

Put in place for Saxotech transition implementation
On a ranch east of Durango, Justin Werts, with El Dorado Cattle Co., feeds his longhorn cattle with spent barley from Durango Brewing Co. A relationship allowing microbrewers to easily rid themselves of spent barley and ranchers to obtain a delicious and nutritious meal for their cattle may soon be strangled by regulations proposed by the Food and Drug Administration that would make the practice cost-prohibitive. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

On a ranch east of Durango, Justin Werts, with El Dorado Cattle Co., feeds his longhorn cattle with spent barley from Durango Brewing Co. A relationship allowing microbrewers to easily rid themselves of spent barley and ranchers to obtain a delicious and nutritious meal for their cattle may soon be strangled by regulations proposed by the Food and Drug Administration that would make the practice cost-prohibitive.

For centuries, breweries have donated or sold their spent grain, a high-protein oatmeal-looking byproduct of the brewing process, for use as livestock feed.

In Durango, many breweries donate their spent grain to local ranchers. This makes sense: Breweries get free waste removal, and ranchers get free (minus transport), nutritious feed for their animals.

However, a proposed Food and Drug Administration rule could end this practice by characterizing those spent grains as “animal feed” and requiring breweries to be regulated as “commercial animal-feed manufacturers.” The rule, part of a larger body of regulations meant to ensure that the food marketed for all animals is safe, would require brewers to follow potentially costly regulations or pay to send their spent grains to the landfill instead.

Controversy regarding the proposed rule abounds, especially because there has been no evidence of a threat to animals or humans posed by this practice.

The proposed rule was released Oct. 29, 2013, for public comment, and it received more than 2,000 responses, most questioning the proposed regulation and calling for a risk assessment of the practice before the regulation is finalized. The public comment period ended March 31. After the outcry, the FDA said April 3 that it would release an amended proposal this summer and welcome further comment.

The regulations are proposed as a result of the Food Safety Modernization Act, passed in 2011, which gave the FDA new authority to set food-safety rules.

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., wrote a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg to express concern about the issue and reiterated the brewing industry’s request for the FDA to conduct a risk assessment.

“Colorado’s craft brewers are leading the way forward for their industry, creating some of the world’s most innovative beers and sustainability practices,” Udall said in a statement. “The FDA needs to ensure our food supply remains safe, but its new proposed rule may unjustifiably hurt Colorado’s brewers and farmers.”

In his letter, he mentioned that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has “decades worth of data” that show the history of the practice and does not reveal, as far as he is aware, that it has ever compromised food safety.

According to a 2013 Brewer’s Association survey, breweries resell or give away 90 percent of their spent grains as livestock feed.

Durango breweries partake in this practice of donating spent grains to local ranches.

Bill Graham, co-founder of Ska Brewing Co., said he has three options for spent grain: Send it to the landfill, compost it or give it away as animal feed. The last option is free and a great disposal method for a usable product.

Spent grain is essentially, in the case of Ska, barley that hot water has been filtered through. It gets pumped into a holding tank, which farmers drive under, filling their trucks with the stuff, and take the feed straight to their animals.

According to Justin Wertz, partner at El Dorado Cattle Co. in Durango, the spent grain is still steaming hot when it is picked up and is fed to his cattle within an hour, usually.

“We want to feed them the freshest possible product,” Wertz said. El Dorado sources spent grains from both Ska Brewery and Durango Brewing Co. Its website touts the product as “grass fed, finished on local brewers grain.”

“It’s unbelievable, almost a complete feed,” he said. “It’s really high in protein as well as a bunch of other nutrients.”

The feed is nutritious and is 70 percent moisture, according to Wertz, so it can provide cattle with a source of hydration in the cold months when they shy away from drinking water.

According to Graham, the proposed regulations would require Ska to dry and bag the spent grain in a way that human hands wouldn’t touch it. This would require a multi-million dollar operation, something small brewers cannot afford. Instead, Ska would be forced to send their spent grain to the landfill, denying farmers like Wertz from a major feed source.

If the rule was implemented, Wertz said he would “just about be put out of business,” since buying corn would be too expensive of a cost to pass on to the consumer.

He says that the current practice is as much a favor to breweries as it is to the farms since breweries produce a “ludicrous” amount of spent grain, which cannot be easily stored.

“For 5,000 years, brewers and farmers have worked in consortium to remove spent grain, and it’s never been a problem,” Graham said. “I’m confused why the FDA is trying to fix something that isn’t broken.”

Ska is the largest producer on the Western Slope and works with a consortium of ranchers to haul its grain away. Graham says Ska has responded to the FDA proposal and talked to ranchers about it.

Durango Brewing Co. also has an agreement to give its spent grains to El Dorado, said Matt Harrison, lead brewer.

Harrison said he sees no reason why the practice should be ended. The grain used, he said, is essentially boiled and, therefore, pasteurized in the brewing process and is promptly consumed by cattle.

“People drink the beer, there’s no reason the cows can’t eat the grain,” Harrison said.

Steamworks Brewing Co.’s spent grains go to James Ranch, where it is used for food for hogs as well as compost. In previous years, the waste was sent to Santa Rita Ranch, until the ranch got rid of its cattle operation.

“It’s nice that it just goes away,” Ken Martin, director of brewing operations at Steamworks, said. Martin said the brewery creates a mountain of the stuff, and providing it to farms is a good partnership.

Steve Jung, a rancher from Bayfield, picks up 3,000 pounds of spent grains from Ska Brewery every day of the week.

Hamburg was asked about the spent grains rule March 27 during a House Committee on Appropriations hearing on the FDA’s budget. Hamburg said she understood why the practice makes sense, and the FDA plans to reopen comment on the proposal in some areas.

“I hope we can find a meaningful and viable solution,” she said.

Even if implemented, small companies may be exempt from the regulations or at least allowed more time to comply.

Katie Fiegenbaum is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald. Reach her at kfiegenbaum@durangoherald.com.

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