COMSTOCK PARK, Mich. — It’s been a whirlwind start to the new year for local distillers.
Last week, they found out they’d be responsible for paying a $14,000 FDA fee after they stepped up and helped make hand sanitizer at the start of the pandemic.
At the time they thought it was the rotten cherry on top of a brutal year, but after that news went public, the U.S. Health Department tweeted on New Year’s Eve that they won’t be enforcing the fee.
“I’m pleased to announce we have directed FDA to cease enforcement of these arbitrary, surprise user fees. Happy New Year, distilleries, and cheers to you for helping keep us safe!” (2/2)— HHS Office of Public Affairs (@SpoxHHS) December 31, 2020
It's welcome news, but it left distillers like Comstock Park’s Bier Distillery with even more questions.
“The hard part now is that we just don't know what's going to happen, even though that it looks like the HHS slapped down the FDA on assessing this $14,000 fee,” Bier Distillery Owner Joel Bierling said. "We don't know if the FDA is going to come back and say, 'Well, you know, we couldn't do it that way, but we can still issue the fee this other way.' So we don't really know what's going to happen."
Bier Distillery and other local spirit makers FOX 17 talked with chose to unregister with the FDA and halted hand sanitizer production to avoid getting charged with a different fee in the new year.
That’s not something Bierling wanted to do. Sanitizer kept his business afloat and helped provide other local places, like libraries and recreation areas, with a product at a good price.
“It really kind of made 2020 worthwhile,” Bierling said about their sanitizer production. "It was so impactful for us to fill this need for it."
“It was a significant part of our business since March, and at least it was worthwhile to continue going forward with that,” Bierling added.
And Bierling would like to continue if the FDA could clear up what it could cost him in the future, because he can’t risk another surprise fee.
“The problem is that the way that they built these fees, it’s dependent on how many licenses they essentially have," Bierling noted. "The fees are higher when they have fewer facilities. If we don't know what the fee might be, how can you build a model off of something where you don't know what the costs are?”
“It’s just kind of ridiculous … We'll have to see what happens,” Bierling added.
FOX 17 reached out to both the FDA and HHS. We are waiting on a response.