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Fueling the Food Industry: Distillers Grains

May 9th, 2013
By Cristina Stella, Legal Fellow
Center for Food Safety

Your car and your dinner may have more in common than you think.  If you eat  beef from conventionally raised cows, odds are that during its life it was fed a by‑product of ethanol fuel production known as “distillers grains.”   Named for its historical use in whiskey and beer distillation, distillers grains are the solids that remain after milled corn and water have fermented into ethyl alcohol.  While its name may be quaint, the reality of distillers grains is anything but charming.  This leftover mash has become pervasive in animal agriculture as a feed supplement for beef cattle because it is widely available, very inexpensive (thanks to government subsidies of the ethanol industry), and filled with nutritious proteins, fibers, and oils.  As with many industrial farming practices, however, it’s not as beneficial as it may seem; the “solution” of reusing what would otherwise be discarded creates its own set of problems. 

Most immediately concerning, distillers grains may increase the prevalence of E. coli contaminationin cattle hides and manure.  A report released this week by the Agricultural Research Service within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) showed that the E. coli bacteria that forms in an animal’s gut survives longer in its feces when it has been fed wet distillers grains.  For our food supply, this is significant because contaminated feces can get onto the hides of animals sent for slaughter, which means slaughterhouses and the meat sold to consumers can become contaminated.  Because E. coli can also survive for months in our soils and water supplies, this new information about distillers grains makes proper manure management and land application techniques all the more important to protect public health and the environment.

This latest evidence of the harms of distillers grains compounds another problematic practice: because antibiotics are routinely used in ethanol production, distillers grains are packed with antibiotics.  Ethanol is produced by fermenting sugar, in much the same way as the alcohol that we drink.  During processing, fermentation tanks become contaminated with bacteria that convert sugar into lactic or acetic acid.  This decreases ethanol yield because that sugar is needed to ferment into ethanol.  To kill and control the bacteria, ethanol producers use antibiotics.  These antibiotics are substantially similar to antibiotics used in human medicine, including penicillin, virginiamycin, erythromycin, tylosin, or tetracycline.  Two of the United States Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) own studies confirm that distillers grains sold as animal feed contain antibiotics. 

What’s worse, the antibiotics animals receive via distillers grains are in addition to those they receive for the usual therapeutic and non-therapeutic reasons on factory farms: to alleviate the effects of the cramped and overcrowded conditions in which disease festers and spreads rampantly. While FDA has issued voluntary guidelines for some antibiotic use in animal agriculture – proposing that their use be “judicious” – it currently does not regulate, monitor, or require reporting of this type of antibiotic use in ethanol production.  And it’s not only animals that suffer from overuse of antibiotics; antibiotic resistance is a serious threat to public health that costs Americans $20 billion annually in excessive health care costs.  FDA thus leaves the fate of our food and our health in the hands of the industrial agriculture industry. 

This lack of federal oversight led Center for Food Safety and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy to file a legal petition with FDA in March of this year, asking the agency to prohibit the use of antibiotics in distillers grains that will be used for animal feed.  We are still waiting on FDA’s response, and will continue to push them to respond in light of the latest evidence that distillers grains harm public health. 

In the meantime, we urge those who agree that FDA should be doing more to regulate antibiotics in animal agriculture to support pending bills in Congress.  For example, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) would require FDA to re‑review certain antibiotic approvals and withdraw approval for those found to cause antibacterial resistance.  The Antimicrobial Data Collection Act would require increased data collection and enhance transparency to increase public awareness of antimicrobial drug use in agriculture.  Finally, the Delivering Antimicrobial Transparency in Animals Act (DATA) would require drug manufacturers and large‑scale meat producers to collect and provide better information to FDA on the use of antimicrobial drugs in animal feed. 

Just as we expect the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce standards for the fuel we put in the cars we drive, we demand that FDA enforce stricter standards for the feed we put in the animals we eat.

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