"Meat glue" has been around for decades, but, like "pink slime," the product has recently bubbled to the surface of public consciousness in a way that's making the meat industry uneasy.
Recent news reports have questioned the product's safety and--as happened with pink slime--industry giants have responded by distancing themselves from the product. Wednesday, Cargill and Tyson assured customers that they don't use it in any of their meat products.
And Thursday the American Meat Institute, which represents the meat industry, responded with a press call to set the record straight. For starters, they don't call it meat glue.
Instead, industry groups call the powdered or liquid enzyme fibrin, transglutaminase or TG. Whatever the name, it's an enzyme that binds formerly unconnected pieces of meat to make them look like one solid chunk. While some "modernist cuisine" chefs use it for funky hybrids (bacon stuck to cod anyone?), it's more often used in high end restaurants, casinos, banquet and cruise ship settings to create uniform "filet" like cuts from disconnected pieces.
Critics express a few beefs with this practice. First, they say it's deceptive to consumers who might believe they purchased, for example, a whole tenderloin rather than a reconstructed one. In a store it would have to be labeled as "reconstructed," but not in restaurants.
Second, they say it can violate religious dietary restrictions, since at least one brand of the enzyme is made with pig and cow blood.
And third, they say the practice compromises food safety when the meat is cooked rare in the center. True whole muscle cuts can safely remain rare in the center because their centers have never been exposed to air or bacteria, but glued pieces, theoretically, can't.
"Meat glue" is produced by at least two companies, principally Fibrimex and Japan based Ajinomoto, which is also one of the world's biggest suppliers of aspartame and monosodium glutamate. You can even buy a kilo of its TG on Amazon where it's called "meat glue" for about $140.
Reporters asked meat binder makers and AMI representatives about all of these issues and here's what they said:
On food safety: "It is correct that ground meat products should be cooked to 160, which creates instantaneous lethality [to pathogens]," said Dana Hanson, extension meat specialist at North Carolina State University. "But you create the same level of assurance with 145 and a three minute hold time."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed this advice but admitted that its guidelines have never been written specifically for reconstructed meat. When asked USDA why temperature guidelines for whole muscle meat should be applied to reconstructed products whose interior may have been exposed to bacteria, just as ground meat is, the department answered that "ground beef would likely have greater levels of contamination throughout the product than non-intact steaks."
Additionally, AMI says that TG treated meat has never been linked to foodborne illness.
On disclosures: While glued meat would be labeled as "reconstructed" in a retail setting, Brendan Naulty of Ajinomoto acknowledged that it is not labeled in a restaurant setting. "But," he countered, "If you are served vegetable soup [at a restaurant] are all of the ingredients of the vegetable soup disclosed?"
So how can diners know if they're eating it?
"You can ask," said Christiaan Penning of Fibrimex.
On religious dietary violations: "I'm absolutely sure there is no porcine fibrin used in the U.S.," said whose company makes its Fibrimex meat binder from pork and beef blood. "In other countries [pork derived fibrin] is mostly used in pork applications. It may have been registered [in the U.S.] back in the '90s as an option but never happened to enter the U.S. market."
On where you find it: "We sell it mostly to white table cloth restaurants," said Naulty of Ajinomoto, which makes TG, "I have 400 restaurants that have registered and purchased the product over 10 years. Many are creative culinary chefs."
In retail stores: "It would be in pork tenderloin or in some [beef] filets," Penning of Fibrimex said.
On allegations of secrecy: "This is not a secret much as people would like to characterize it in that way," said Janet Riley of the AMI. "And the willingness of these companies to get on this call shows that."
On prevalance: Fibrimex and Ajinomoto representatives say that if all of their exisiting product were being used right now it would be enough to treat about 8 million pounds of beef. Mark Dopp of the AMI noted that adds up to about .03 percent of all the beef eaten in the U.S. each year.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun