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FDA backpedals on spent-grain proposal after brewers voice opposition

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CANTON - Brewers have long donated so-called spent grain to farmers to use as livestock feed, but they worry a proposal by the Food and Drug Administration could threaten that partnership.

The FDA now appears to be backtracking, though, after it recently was swamped with more than 2,000 letters opposing its proposal to regulate the distribution of spent grain from brewers to farmers. The agency plans to release a revised version this summer of its proposal, which is part of the Food Safety Modernization Act. The original proposal would have requred brewers to dry and package spent grain that is used by farmers.

The proposal has outraged brewers across the state, including Kenneth M. Hebb, owner of St. Lawrence Brewing Co., Canton. The company, which was started in June, donates spent grain to a neighboring dairy farm at 1926 Old DeKalb Road, which has about 400 milking cows and is co-owned by brothers Josef M. and Gerald J. teRiele.

“If we were unable to give our grain to the adjacent dairy farm, it would make the logistics of spent-grain handling a lot more expensive and troublesome,” said Mr. Hebb, who has opposed the FDA plan by submitting comments to the New York State Brewers Association and National Craft Brewers Association. “Overall, it would create a drag on the business because we’d have to pay for and handle a couple of thousand pounds of wet grain every time we brew, which is several times a week.”

Mr. Hebb said the brewing industry is convinced the rule would serve no positive purpose.

“Part of why the FDA may be backtracking is there’s no demonstrable evidence as to the negative impact this has had,” he said. “We’re handling this grain at temperatures that are sanitary, and it comes out of the mash tun and goes directly to the farm within hours.”

All brewers need a method to dispose of spent grains — the mushy and wet byproduct created during beer production. For decades, farmers have provided an easy solution to that dilemma by using grain to feed their livestock. Because they are providing a service to brewers, farmers usually pick up the grain at breweries for free.

If the FDA proposal takes effect, Mr. Hebb said, the company would not dry and package spent grain, and its partnership with the farm would end. Not enough grain is being produced by the brewery to make it worthwhile for the farm to buy, and if the brewery had to dry and package the grain, it would be forced to charge the farm to cover the cost.

If the proposal takes effect, “I would probably try to find an organic vegetable farmer that would turn it into compost,” Mr. Hebb said.

The teRiele dairy farm now uses the spent grain it picks up from the brewery only to feed its 500 young cattle not used for milking, Gerald teRiele said. Milking cows aren’t fed spent grain, he said, because the farm doesn’t receive enough from the brewery to make it a consistent portion of their diet.

“If (brewers) had to dry it and you had to pay, it wouldn’t be worth it,” said Mr. teRiele, 74. “We wouldn’t pay for it, because the brewery can’t make enough in order to set our diet up for 400 milkers. They can only brew at certain times.”

The Canton brewery now produces about 16,000 tons of spent grain per month, Mr. Hebb said. But 18 months from now, when the brewery is expected to operate at full capacity, that amount is expected double to about 32,000 tons a month.

“Right now we don’t produce enough for the farm to work it into their regular feeding plan,” Mr. Hebb said. “But I suspect we’ll get there eventually and turn it into a revenue stream,” because the farm would be willing to pay for a greater amount.

Sackets Harbor Brewing Co., which has donated spent grain to a local pig farmer for the past four years, also would be negatively affected by the FDA proposal, according to owner Thomas W. Scozzafava. He said the brewery could not afford to dry and package grain, because it doesn’t produce enough to sell at a profit.

“For years, we have given it away as a do-good-for-the-local-farmer kind of move,” he said. “We have more of a choppy production where in the summer we’re producing a lot of grain, but in the winter it slows down. So it’s a difficult thing to rely on for a revenue steam, but the bigger brewers definitely do it.”

Mr. Scozzafava said if the FDA proposal is enacted, the brewery likely would dispose of its grain at a landfill. As an alternative, dried grain could be used to make “beer bread” at Alteri’s Bakery in Watertown, which he also owns.

Nevertheless, Mr. Scozzafava is optimistic the FDA will change its mind after discovering that its policy would cause more harm than good.

“My sense is that this bill is likely to be recalled,” he said. “If it’s found out there have been no problems, then at that point maybe it will cause them to reverse course on it.”

Brewmaster Andrew S. Gersten, who has worked at the Sackets Harbor brewery since 2004, said the FDA proposal would make it too costly for small breweries across the state to deliver spent grain to farms.

“What this would do is require grains to be mechanically removed from the lauter tun, then dried and packaged,” Mr. Gersten said. “For a small brewer like us, we would probably send it to a landfill because it’s more cost-effective. You’re probably talking about a $10,000 investment to do something, when you could just toss it in the garbage.”

Mr. Gersten said he believes the proposal is nonsensical because brewers have been donating grain to farms for “hundreds of years” without any problems.

“I’ve been brewing for the last 15 years, and I’ve never heard from farmers it’s been a problem,” he said.

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