It being Saturday - Final Four Saturday at that - our topic is, appropriately, beer. Well, not really beer. The stuff that's left over after people make beer. And yes, this is another all-American tale of government regulation run amok.
A recent story in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat says beer brewers and ranchers are up in arms over a proposal by the Food and Drug Administration to regulate "spent grains" that currently are fed to livestock. Spent grains are what remains after breweries place barley, wheat and other grains in hot water to extract the liquid from which beer is made. Breweries typically give away or sell spent grain very cheaply to farmers who use it as feed for pigs, cows and other livestock.
Now the FDA has proposed a rule that would make breweries meet the same sanitary and handling procedures as pet food and livestock feed manufacturers to distribute the grain. The Press Democrat says those procedures involve extensive planning, record-keeping and reporting to FDA inspectors, at significant expense.
If the FDA rules go through, it likely means the end of using spent grain as feed, according to Rich Norgrove, brewmaster at Bear Republic. "It would become cost prohibitive," he told the Press Democrat.
That prospect doesn't sit well with a rancher who has relied on spent grain from Bear Republic for 18 years as the main food source for her 300 head of cattle. Cheryl LaFranchi says she takes up to 12.5 tons of spent grain off the brewery's hands five days a week. "Now the government wants to get involved? What are they going to do with it, put it in a landfill?" she asked.
Turns out the answer is yes. So much for sustainability, recycling, renewable resources and all that environmentally correct stuff. This is government we're talking about here.
The newspaper quoted another brewmaster at Anderson Valley Brewing as saying the expense of buying food processing equipment and complying with government paperwork in order to sell spent grain is not financially feasible. He says it would be much cheaper just to dump the byproduct in a landfill and if the regs go through, that becomes a simple business decision.
Rancher Peter Bradford, who buys 1,500 tons of the spent grain yearly from Anderson Valley Brewing, says if the company is forced to stop selling him spent grains it will devastate his operation. He says the grain costs one-tenth what any other feed does. "It would be a tremendous hit on our production," he says.
And what's the impetus for this government intervention? Have cows been getting sick, or making people sick, or both from feeding on the grain?
That's what the FDA claims. "The proposed regulation would help prevent foodborne illness in both animals and people," the agency said in a statement. However when asked by the Press Democrat for specific cases of illness caused by spent grains, the FDA couldn't come up with any. Farmers say that is because it has never happened.
Brewers Association Director Paul Gatza put it this way: "Grains have been given to livestock for thousands of years and there's not been a problem with this. This is just a regulation solving a problem that doesn't exist."
He's right, of course. It's the kind of mess only the government can make, harming business and the environment for no rational reason, but rather, just to regulate. Congress would do well to pull the plug on this debacle by passing an exemption protecting use of spent grain as livestock feed.