Alaska's King

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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Alaska homeless shelter stops serving bear meat

A Juneau homeless shelter has stopped serving donated bear meat after learning the state prohibits nonprofit groups from accepting wild game meats such as bear, fox and walrus.

"We didn't know that it is illegal," said Jetta Whittaker, executive director of the Glory Hole.

For years, the Glory Hole accepted bear meat to supplement its meals for the homeless. The meat went into many recipes, including burgers, casseroles and spaghetti.

But last year, Whittaker learned that serving it was contrary to rules set by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. This year, it has meant turning down five offers of bear meat.

"That was 250 pounds of ground meat I could use for spaghetti sauce," said Bob Thompson, operations manager of the shelter. "We are protein-poor."

The Glory Hole rarely gets offers of deer because venison is more palatable to most people while bear meat has a stronger, wild smell, Whittaker said.

Some of the people served by the Glory Hole said they miss meat of any kind. David Kelley, who is staying at the shelter, said he appreciates the three meals a day but he is tired of eating starchy vegetables.

"I will eat whatever you put in front of me," Kelley said. "But you cannot live by starches alone."

Organizations such as the Food Bank of Alaska cannot accept bear meat because of the same regulation.

State food safety officials said even if the organizations could get bear meat from hunters for free, eating it could make people sick.

Domestic pigs and certain carnivorous animals, including bears, might be infested with the larvae of a species of worm called trichinella. That can cause trichinosis, which can result in diarrhea, vomiting, breathing problems and even death in severe cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

People may question why the state allows the distribution of pork but not of bear meat, but state officials said there are differences in how pork and bear meat are processed.

"Pork is raised commercially, slaughtered, inspected and processed under the regulatory guidelines of the U.S. Department of Agriculture," said Ronald Klein, program manager of the DEC's food safety and sanitation program. "Wild game and bear meat are not."

Whittaker would like to see the agency create a method to test for trichinosis or relax the regulations.

"We serve a lot of guys who need protein to get their days going," Whittaker said.

A nonprofit with a yearly budget of $193,000, the Glory Hole has only $4,500 to churn out 54,000 meals a year for the homeless.

Dan Rasmussen, who cooks at the Glory Hole five days a week, said meat is the most popular item on the menu.

"When you serve oatmeal, probably six people show up," Rasmussen said. "The day I mixed 6 pounds of bacon with 10 dozen eggs, it was gone in 10 minutes."

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