Want to infuriate the entire brewing industry? Start poking around its trash.
That's what the Food and Drug Administration discovered when it threatened to dramatically affect how breweries use their spent grain.
Last fall, the FDA proposed a new rule: Facilities producing feed for animals should be subject to regulations similar to those in food manufacturing. Any facility producing animal feed would be required to produce a written plan to identify and minimize contamination.
This proposed rule — part of the FDA's attempt to revamp its food safety rules by identifying potential problems before they occur — has major implications for breweries, which have been providing local farmers with free or discounted grain for centuries. And the looming FDA regulation — while not as controversial as originally anticipated — could still stifle the tradition of recycling spent grain.
When brewers make beer, they're left with massive amounts of leftover "spent" grain. The majority of brewers have arrangements to either give or sell it to local farmers — who welcome it as cheap and nutritious feed for their animals. Under the new rule, breweries that give away their grain would be classified as animal food producers, with the new set of rules and regulations.
The vagueness of the proposed rule led brewers and farmers to speculate that the FDA would require breweries to spend time and money to dry and package the grain, making it more cost-effective to simply dump the grain instead of giving it to farmers — driving up waste costs for breweries and depriving farmers of their cheap feed.
Brewers were terrified. The regulations could cost up to $13 million per brewery, said Scott Mennen, Widmer Brothers' vice president of brewing operations. That figure quickly circulated around the industry, and several members of Congress wrote to the FDA asking it to reconsider the rule. Before the comment period for the rule ended on March 31, it garnered 2,000 comments from brewers and farmers.
"There was a huge panic," says Brian Stechschulte, executive director of the San Francisco Brewers Guild. "It's a relationship that's been going on for centuries, and the FDA didn't provide any basis for making this new regulation, which also mystified a lot of the brewers."
While the FDA has since clarified its intent — it won't require the expensive drying and packing process, and emphasizes that the costs to breweries will be minimal — it's still unclear whether the rule would be a financial burden for breweries. And a major complaint remains: The FDA hasn't provided any evidence that there's been contamination or illness from spent grains, so why is it trying to regulate them?
"[It's] kind of a shot in the dark to try and find a resolution by approaching it through spent grain," says Andrew Ritter, head brewer at Oakland's Linden Street Brewery. "It had good intentions, [but] it would have been totally impossible for us to do."
According to brewers, there's just not much opportunity for contamination — most local breweries simply dump grain into green compost bins or trash bags once they're done, and wait for the farmer to come pick it up. At Linden Street, which gives its grain to a farm in Napa, it's never more than 12 hours between brewing and pickup.
For farmers like Achadinha Cheese Co., a family-run dairy in Petaluma that makes small-batch goat cheeses, losing access to the grain would be devastating.
"I'd have to raise prices on my cheese, no two ways about it," says Jim Pacheco, a third-generation dairy farmer whose family has relied on brewers' grain to feed its animals since the 1960s. Twice a week, Pacheco goes up to Healdsburg's Bear Republic Brewing or Santa Rosa's Russian River Brewing to pick up 10 tons of spent grain, which he feeds to his cows and goats.
His wife, Donna, agrees. "This is a big portion of their food, and if we couldn't feed them this, we would be in trouble," she says. The cows and goats at Achadinha graze on pasture year-round, but when the grass dries up, the Pachecos rely on hay and brewers' grain.
The grain is even more vital to farmers this year, with the drought driving hay prices up. Last year, the Pachecos spent about $33,000 on hay. This year, they're estimating it'll be about $90,000.
"It's going to be a really, really tough year on top of the fact that they want to regulate the brewers' grain," says Donna Pacheco. "It could be enough to put us out of business."
It's not just farms that rely on spent grain. Several businesses have realized how much leftover grain beer produces and now use it in their products. There's a San Diego company that makes spent-grain dog biscuits, and at New York's Eataly, bakers make spent-grain bread. In San Francisco, ReGrained makes granola bars out of the grain, selling its Honey Almond IPA and Chocolate Coffee Stout bars at farmers markets around the Bay Area.
ReGrained began when Dan Kurzrock and his co-founder found themselves with large amounts of leftover grain while home-brewing in college. They get their grain from smaller brewers in San Francisco, who often have to compost or dump their grain because they have less access to farmers.
While it's unclear how the rule would affect businesses like ReGrained that aren't using the grain for animal feed, "we're a little relieved it's not something we have to address immediately," Kurzrock says. "It seemed like something that was adding barriers to sustainable practices that [are] harmless. It was a bit of a head-scratcher when we heard about it."
The FDA seems to be listening. It recently published an FAQ on its website, emphasizing that it understands people's confusion: No, it wouldn't require breweries to dry and pack spent grains. Yes, small breweries could be exempt from the rule. No, it doesn't know of any instances of any foodborne illness resulting from spent grain.
"We agree with those in industry and the sustainability community that the recycling of human food byproducts to animal feed contributes substantially to the efficiency and sustainability of our food system and is thus a good thing," FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine Michael R. Taylor wrote on the FDA's blog. "We have no intention to discourage or disrupt it."
The FDA plans to propose a new version of the rule later this summer. In the meantime, brewers are relieved, although still apprehensive about what's to come.
"It's not clear if they backed off," says Stechschulte. "Until that revision comes out sometime this summer, there's still some concern. It might not be as extreme, but it could still involve some new regulation or procedure that could increase costs."
It's also a blow to an industry already swamped with regulations. "That is more red tape that inevitably holds back small businesses," Stechschulte says. "Hopefully the government can come to a happy medium."
Shelby Pope is a freelance writer living in and eating her way through Oakland, Calif. A version of this post originally appeared on KQED's Bay Area Bites blog, based in San Francisco. Copyright 2014 KQED.