FAIRBANKS - Michael Lengenfelder found a novel use for 57 cases of bad shortening when the U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered him to get rid of the stuff.
"My first question was, 'Can I give it to dog mushers?"' said Lengenfelder, the director of nutrition services for the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District.
Lengenfelder is not a musher, but knew sled dog owners supplemented their dogs' diets with corn oil and other types of fat to boost their calorie intake during the winter training months.
Lengenfelder had made a similar arrangement to get rid of a batch of frozen, diced chicken when he worked for the Kenai Peninsula school district several years ago. The chicken was recalled because it supposedly had bone fragments in it. But instead of taking it to the dump, Lengenfelder offered it to mushers, who were more than happy to take it off his hands.
In this case, the USDA recalled the shortening after rust spots were found on the inside covers of some cans of the shortening and it was deemed unfit for human consumption.
But the USDA initially frowned on the idea of giving the grease to mushers, and Lengenfelder began down a long and winding trail in an attempt to get rid of it.
First, Lengenfelder tried the borough dump. There were two problems, landfill officials told Lengenfelder. The grease is considered a flammable substance, and if the cans were to break apart, the grease plugs up the dump's water system.
Next, Lengenfelder contacted a man in North Pole who treats contaminated soil to see if he could burn the oil. No deal, the man told Lengenfelder. Shortening is a food product and he wasn't allowed to burn food products.
Finally, Lengenfelder contacted a company in Anchorage that said it would dispose of the grease but it would cost more than $800.
Even though the manufacturer, not the school district, was going to foot the bill, the situation still didn't seem right to Lengenfelder.
So he went back to Molly Wheeler, the state's commodity director, and asked her to check with the USDA again. Finally, after three months, Lengenfelder got the OK to distribute the grease to mushers.
He contacted the Alaska Dog Mushers Association and Two Rivers Dog Mushers Association to get word out. By Friday afternoon, Lengenfelder already had the names of three mushers on a waiting list.
Mushers will be given stickers to put on the cans noting they are not fit for human consumption and will have to sign a waiver stating they won't sell, barter or consume the grease.