If you were to combine the attributes of beef, the best tasting protein in the world, with the soy industry's expertise at marketing something as formidable as tofu, the pairing would be tough to beat.

It's an alliance that could come about, if we don't squander the opportunity. You have a part to play.

Representatives of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), six other meat producing organizations and the Soy Protein Council are currently discussing Appendix A. If enacted, this pending USDA rule could potentially allow greater amounts of vegetable protein products (VPP) to be served as part of school lunches. Generally, VPPs include soy flour, isolated soy protein or textured soy protein (TSP).

At first glance, Appendix A would appear to threaten beef's $75 million in annual sales to the nation's school foodservice program. Look more closely, however, and doors to the right and left open wide for new product development and industry cooperation.

This union has been tried before. In the 1970s, schools served hamburger patties that more closely resembled hockey pucks. But, today's school foodservice products are made under tightly controlled manufacturing conditions and are generally pre-cooked to ensure quality and consistency.

Products being served today include ground beef patties, sausages, taco filling and spaghetti sauce, to name a few. Now's the time to lengthen that list.

For sure, there are practical limits to the amount of TSP beef products can tolerate, and the soy folks are the first to confirm this. Knowing that, let's put some checkoff dollars from each industry in one pot and determine if we can cook up even more tasty, nutritious items that'll help put beef protein at the top of the list when these kids start writing their own checks for groceries.

Attracting Young Consumers NCBA says the new guidelines may allow a school to serve a VPP product and not offer an equivalent animal protein dish. That's a legitimate concern. Students who, for religious, cultural or other reasons, desire vegetable protein should be able to get it. At the same time, students who want other proteins should have them as well.

Until early 1998, zinc- and iron-fortified VPP could account for up to 30% of meat, fish, poultry or meat alternatives served in the Food Based Menu Planning program (entree, sides, dessert, drink).

Many schools now use the Nutrient Standard Menu program. Under this plan, nutrients are analyzed over a seven-day period to ensure students receive proper nutrition rather than rely on fortification. Students can receive considerable amounts of soy protein under this plan.

Both the Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization state that soy protein is equal to animal protein.

Lynn Kosty, NCBA's associate director of food policy, says all proteins aren't created equally. She says beef is rich in vitamins and minerals. This is true, but protein, not vitamins and minerals, is the determining factor.

Specifically, the standard used states soy protein concentrate to have a 0.99 digestibility score, soy protein isolate a 0.92 and beef a 0.92 of a possible 1.00.

Pro Or Con, Have Your Voice Heard Industry and third-party sources agree that the TSP used today has reduced soy flavor and soy aroma. Plus, its fiber portion absorbs meat juices and retains more meat flavor than earlier versions.

School foodservice directors must serve meals that offer good eating experiences, are nutritious and meet federal guidelines, which include dietary fat levels at 30% or lower. VPPs let them reach that goal within budget restraints. So far, beef products that include TSP are working.

Every foodservice director BEEF talked with at this summer's American School Foodservice Association national conference said TSP-enhanced beef products were a boon to keeping food tasting fresh, moist and reducing fat content. They all said kids ate the products and liked them.

These professionals represent thousands of students who are potential long-term beef customers. We must realize the importance of cooperating with industries than can help us in any stage of the marketplace.

The meat and soy industries are cooperating. As things stand now, they're relatively in agreement as to what they'll jointly present to the USDA undersecretary of Food Nutrition and Consumer Services. Some meat industries want to retain nutrient fortification and to use products that are commercially available. The soy industry is amenable to this.

This cooperation may mean adjusting here and there to imperfect solutions. Let's not lose sight of the long term. Instead, let's consider new industry alliances, existing product enhancement and new product development.

Each industry has much at stake. An innovative solution could help these industries develop new customers. It's something to consider. Comments regarding Appendix A are being accepted through Nov. 19. State beef councils and NCBA suggest you direct them to their offices.