If such rules are adopted, "the whole process would have to go away," said Rich Norgrove, brewmaster at Bear Republic in Healdsburg and Cloverdale. "It would become cost prohibitive."
For 18 years, Bear Republic has sold its spent grains to Knight's Valley rancher Cheryl LaFranchi, who has come to rely on it as a main food source for her 300 or so head of cattle. She takes up to 12.5 tons at a time, five times a week.
"Now the government wants to get involved," she said. "What are they going to do with it? Put it in a landfill?"
That's exactly what will happen at Anderson Valley Brewing in Boonville if the regulations are approved, said brewmaster Fal Allen. The brewery generates nearly 1,500 tons of spent grain every year, all of which goes to nearby rancher Peter Bradford. But the likely cost of the extra food processing equipment and paperwork would make it cheaper just to dump it, Allen said.
That would spell disaster for the ranch, Bradford said, because the price he pays Anderson Valley for the grain is considerably less than any other feed.
"It would be a tremendous hit on our production," he said. "We rely on the grain ... It is certainly one of the best feeds for the price."
The FDA is collecting comment on the proposal through Monday. The Brewers Association and the Beer Institute, the two primary industry associations, have mobilized brewers and farmers to weigh in against the idea. Lawmakers from major brewing states, such as Colorado and Oregon, also have spoken out against it, Brewers Association Director Paul Gatza said.
"Grains have been given to livestock for thousands of years, and there's not been a problem with this," Gatza said. "This is just a regulation solving a problem that doesn't exist."
Beer Institute spokesman Chris Thorne said he is optimistic the industry will convince the FDA that the proposal "exceeds the intent of Congress" when it passed recent legislation calling for an overhaul of food safety rules.
Using spent grain as feed "is a terrific lifecycle story that should be encouraged," he said, "because it's basically recycling."
The FDA did not make a spokesman available last week but in a written statement said that the proposal stems from a broad modernization of the nation's food safety system, the largest overhaul in at least 70 years.
"This proposed regulation would help prevent foodborne illness in both animals and people," the agency said in the statement. "The proposal is part of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act's larger effort to modernize the food safety system for the 21st century and focus public and private efforts on preventing food safety problems, rather than relying primarily on responding to problems after the fact."
The agency couldn't immediately say whether there had ever been reports of foodborne illness related to spent grains, though North Coast farmers and brewers say they have never experienced any such thing.
At the region's largest brewery, Lagunitas in Petaluma, the effect of the regulations could be considerable, said Leon Sharyon, the brewery's chief financial officer. The brewery generates at least 450 tons of spent grains every week, more than 23,000 tons per year. That number could double now that a second Lagunitas brewery has opened in Chicago.
"We would be forced to just dump it, put it in the landfill," he said. "Nothing good comes of that."
Santa Rosa rancher Jim Cunningham has been feeding his cattle about 10 tons of Lagunitas grain per day for about two years. Commercial feed costs about $350 per ton these days, an expense that has risen sharply during the recent droughts in the Midwest and California. Lagunitas sells the grain for $100 per ton.
Losing that source "would cut us," he said. "It might put us out of business if we couldn't get cheaper feed."
(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @BeerCountry)