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A mash made in heaven

It would seem to be a perfect pairing: Malted grain is mashed and soaked to produce the sweet liquid that will become beer. The spent grain, still carrying plenty of nutrition, is fed to livestock. Meat from the livestock then finds its way onto the menu of the restaurant attached to the brewery.

Enter the Food and Drug Administration, which is apparently taking its responsibility for ensuring a safe food supply a bit too far. Last fall, the FDA proposed new rules that would require spent mash from breweries to be specially handled and dried and bagged before being fed to livestock.

One local brewer estimates complying with the proposed rules would cost his business $100,000. And that's just one brewery. Estimates for larger breweries range into the millions.

All this is despite an apparent lack of evidence that spent mash has harmed any livestock. Historical researchers say spent brewer's grain has been used as animal feed for hundreds and perhaps even thousands of years.

The spent grain is considered highly nutritious for dairy and beef cattle, pigs and goats. Sheep, according to one source, don't care for it. One local farmer says even his dogs eat it.

Now the FDA has decided a tradition that has survived for millennia may pose some kind of risk.

We don't fault the FDA for being vigilant about food safety. But this seems overly cautious.

The brewing industry fought back against the FDA proposal, and the agency now says it will develop a new set of rules by the end of the summer. If regulators are smart, they will apply a little common sense.

Meanwhile, a growing industry waits to see what the effects might be.

Caldera Brewing Co. in Ashland uses 20,000 pounds of grain a week. The spent mash is donated to farmers, and in one case the brewery trades the grain to a pig farmer who provides pork that is served in Caldera's restaurant.

The real threat of the FDA regulation could be to the environment. Brewers say if they are required to install special equipment they can't afford, they'll simply dump their spent grain in the landfill. That's a lot of extra waste for the landfill to absorb.

Craft brewing has become a going concern in the Rogue Valley, with dozens of breweries slaking the thirst of beer lovers. Beer is brewed across the country, but Oregon is home to hundreds of small craft breweries. The FDA should listen to the concerns of the industry and avoid issuing any unnecessary rules.