Many craft breweries—which are said to add more than $740 million to Minnesota’s economy—have longstanding, handshake agreements with local farmers, and they’re closely watching newly proposed government regulations that could impact those partnerships.

After heating up grains during the mashing process to extract sugar, proteins, and other nutrients used in making beer, brewers are left with hundreds or even thousands of pounds of wet, “spent grains.” Most then donate those grains, or sell them for a modest fee, to local farmers to be used as feed for cattle and other livestock, a practice that has been lauded as sustainable and environmentally responsible.

In fact, Paul Gatza, director of the national Brewers Association, told Twin Cities Business that about 90 percent of U.S. brewers give their spent grain to farmers. The practice is very common among Minnesota's craft breweries, from St. Paul-based Summit Brewing Company to Duluth-based Fitger’s Brewhouse—which actually feeds its spent grains to cattle on a nearby farm, and in turn sells the beef from those same cows at its own restaurants.

So when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently proposed a rule that aimed to establish new requirements for the “manufacturing, processing, packing, and holding of animal food,” it caught brewers’ attention.

The FDA said that the move is part of a larger push to modernize the food safety system and to focus on preventing safety issues, rather than responding to problems after they arise. But members of the brewing industry asserted that there is no recorded evidence of hazards with their spent grains, and they warned that new requirements could add onerous and unnecessary costs if they were required to buy new equipment or devote resources to meeting packaging requirements. Some lawmakers also voiced concerns.

Now, the FDA is clarifying its intentions—saying that the law is not meant to require spent grains be dried and pre-packaged—and plans to update its proposal.

FDA To Revise Its Plan

On Friday, the FDA said in an e-mailed statement to Twin Cities Business that, after soliciting comments on its proposed rule and hearing brewers’ concerns, it will propose “revised language” later this summer, at which point it will provide more details.

But national associations like the American Malting Barley Association and the Beer Institute informed members that they have now heard directly from FDA officials, and the proposed changes appear less dramatic than first anticipated.

“The primary concern of the FDA now appears to be how the spent grain is held at the brewery and transported to the farm,” the American Malting Barley Association told its members.

In other words, the agency appears to be seeking documentation to confirm the cleanliness of the silos that store the grains and the trucks that transport them—which would presumably have a much smaller impact on brewers than if they were, say, required to dry and package the spent grains.

Local Brewers React

Mark Stutrud, CEO of Summit Brewing, first reacted to the FDA’s proposal by saying that substantial changes to the spent-grain process could become “very serious” for his industry.

But following the latest clarifications from industry trade groups, Stutrud said he believes that the issue has been resolved—and he agreed with the FDA that small brewers should be required to keep their equipment clean and keep appropriate records.

That doesn’t mean brewers are completely at ease. Fitger’s Nelson, for example, said it remains difficult to gauge the impact of the FDA proposal until the rules are more defined. Even without packaging requirements, other changes could still translate to increased costs, he said.

For example, Fitger’s brewers shovel spent grains from their “mash tuns,” which steep the grains, into open plastic buckets, which are picked up by farmers and put directly onto a field. Nelson said it's unclear at this point whether that process would pass muster, or if, say, a brewery might be required to purchase an auger that moves spent grains into a closed truck container.

“We’re definitely watching it,” Nelson said of the FDA’s upcoming revised language. “A big part of our food brand is wrapped up in what we call the ‘beer-beef cycle,’” he said, pointing out that the company has even set up a Facebook page touting Fitger's “Drunken Cattle Brewhouse Beef” brand.

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