Mike and Krys Cook raise some beautiful heritage hogs, including Berskhires and Red Wattles, Large Blacks and Durocs. They’ve got nearly 500 of them living happy hog lives out their ranch in Julian where, as they’re known to do, they pig out on nearly 2,000 pounds of food every day.

To help supplement all that feed, the farmers head to Aztec Brewing Company in Vista once a week to pick up two to four tons of what’s known in the industry as “spent grain.” It’s the byproduct of the beer-making process, after the mash does the work of extracting the sugars and other nutrients required to get the fermentation process started, eventually transforming it into that nectar we know you all love: beer.

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Once the grains leave the mash, they no longer have any value to the brewery, but they’re highly coveted by farmers like the Cooks, who say the wet mixture makes a healthy and valuable feed supplement for cows, pigs and other livestock. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that brewers and farmers have had for literally centuries. But a proposed FDA rule may change all that.

Under the Food Safety Modernization Act, the FDA is taking a closer look at manufacturing processes when it comes to animal feed.

The FDA says the proposed rule is meant to address good manufacturing practices when it comes to food for animals, but it calls out beer-makers specifically: “FDA understands that many breweries and distilleries sell spent grains, such as brewers dried grains and distillers dried grains, as animal food. Because those spent grains are not alcoholic beverages themselves, and they are not in a prepackaged form that prevents any direct human contact with the food … the proposed rule would apply to them,” according to this FDA document.

The proposed changes could mean brewers will be required to alter their processes, testing requirements and add additional record-keeping. They also worry that they’ll be required to dry and package any spent grains before they reach a farm animal’s lips — a process most brewers believe is too prohibitive for a product that is already safe. Even the FDA has said it’s unaware of any specific contamination events resulting from spent grains sourced from the brewing industry.

Krys Cook of Cook Pigs Ranch said she uses the spent grains she gets from Aztec Brewing as a supplement for the 500 heritage hogs her ranch raises.

“My pigs go through 2,000 pounds of food a day. I don’t know what we’d do to replace the two to four tons of feed Aztec supplies a week. We depend on it. Financially it would be a burden,” she said.

And it’s not just farmers: David Crane, owner of DoggieBeerBones, depends on spent grains too. He gets them from breweries like Stone Brewing Co., Green Flash Brewing Company, Societe Brewing Co. and AleSmith Brewing Company, and mixes them with flour, eggs and peanut butter to make dog treats.

He sells them under his own label, and creates separate packaging for brewers like Stone who sell them in-house.

Photo courtesy of David Crane
Photo courtesy of David Crane

Crane may not haul away spent grain from distillers by the truckload (he uses four to five keg-sized buckets a week), but his entire business concept is built on being able to use the still-nutritious grains to make his product.

“If the rule change were to happen tomorrow, it would effectively shut me down,” he said.

His back-up plan at this point is understandably a little vague. One option might be to take his business in-house at a brewery. Another idea: to start a nano-sized brewery of his own where he could continue to get the amount of spent grain he needs.

“I know that sounds a little bit crazy, but I already have a business with the dog treats that works well,” he said.

Matt Johnson, head brewer at Karl Strauss Brewing Company, said they’ve been watching closely since they were first notified of the possible change by the Brewers Association, which says the proposed rule “represents an unwarranted burden for all brewers.”

Karl Strauss produces about 16,000 pounds of spent grain per day, Johnson said.

“We have a farmer who comes twice a day with his truck to pick it up. It’s used to feed cattle in Ramona,” said Johnson.

Johnson said he’s not sure what Karl Strauss will do with the grains if the new rule goes through. Drying and packaging them can be expensive, and no one wants to see it end up in the landfill.

“If the FDA does require this, I don’t know what we’ll do. There’s no doubt it will make it tough on us,” said Johnson. “And on the farmers side, when you add in the drought … they get the grain wet, which adds an element of hydration for the cows. It will affect all of us.”

A spokesperson with the FDA says she can’t speculate on the time frame for issuing the final rule.

“The FDA is working as quickly and expeditiously as possible to meet our deadlines for all of the rules required by the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, while also ensuring that we get these rules right,” Juli Putnam, an FDA spokesperson, told me in an email. She says the agency is already reviewing the extensive input received from brewers and others. “We recognize this is an area that should be addressed and will reach out to those concerned.”

Clare Leschin-Hoar is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow her on Twitter @c_leschin or email her clare@leschin-hoar.com.

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