New beef storm may be brewing over "meat glue"

News
May 11, 2012
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It has not been a good few months for beef’s public relations efforts. Outcry over lean fine textured beef (LFTB) and concern over bovine spongiform encephalopathy—sensationally called “pink slime” and “mad cow disease” respectively—have had unfortunate effects on domestic beef demand. And just as the industry is licking its wounds and picking itself up, it looks like another storm may be coming in the form of “meat glue.”

Properly called transglutaminase (TG), “meat glue” is a naturally-occurring enzyme which forms bonds between proteins. Its most consumer-visible use lies in keeping the bacon on baconwrapped fillets and similar high-end novelty meat presentations. TG is also regularly found in caseless sausage, processed deli meat, bread, cheese and yogurt as a binding agent.

Consumers—and their advocacy groups—are crying foul on a number of points. Concerns that restaurants are defrauding consumers and the frequently-questioned issue of food safety and transparency are being raised about TG and its use.

Fraudulent “Franken-steak?”

An evening television news report which aired April 26 on San Francisco’s ABC channel 7 brought consumer attention to TG and has sparked the ensuing fraud complaints. Chef Staffan Terje demonstrated for the camera how cheap stew meat could be glued together and labor-intensively doctored to look like a filet mignon “good enough to please a professional chef.”

The focus on appearance should be noted. In the video article which broke the story, the majority of the time and attention was on the formed steak’s appearance. By comparison, only a few seconds in the video article were dedicated to the substance of the creation. The example glued-together steak was eventually cooked and tasted by Tarje, who pronounced, “it tastes like meat.”

While one would expect meat to taste like meat regardless of its appearance, the taste of stew meat and the taste of fillet are not the same.

“It’s two different things,” said Mark Gwin, technical service manager and meat scientist for Certified Angus Beef (CAB). “And you’d think the consumer would be able to notice that.”

Gwin and Melissa Brewer, spokesperson and assistant director of public relations for CAB, took time to speak with WLJ to clear up some of the growing misconceptions regarding TG. One big one gripping consumers following the San Francisco ABC newscast is that the use of TG is widespread.

“I don’t think it’s that common at all,” said Brewer. “I don’t know many people who use it at all at the restaurant level, I just don’t.”

Gwin agreed that it is not nearly as common as consumers have been led to believe. Both pointed out that TG is not used in any of CAB’s retail products.

It is also important to know the process showed by Terje is not representative of restaurant reality. His construction process to make the fillet look-alike took over 24 hours considering the vacuum-sealed pressing period to produce its artificial shape; hardly an economical practice. Additionally, commercially-available TG costs about $40 a pound, making consumer fears of cheap meat passed off as expensive cuts to make money economically unfeasible.

“You don’t see people throwing scraps into a vat and adding meat glue and making a steak out of it. They just don’t do that,” said Brewer.

Despite these commonsensical details, consumers are still upset over the phantom prospect of cheap meat being sold off as high-value cuts. Mainstream and online news articles on the topic which suggest—or worse, outright claim—that high-end steaks served in restaurants are “a patty of scraps pressed together and held in place” by TG don’t help matters.

“It really disturbs me that the news media lobs these grenades at industries that are trying to do a good job. If you look at the pink slime issue, it was the same thing. This sort of thing kills innovation which ultimately harms the consumer as well as the industries,” said Gwin.

The topic of “why” is of course something of concern to consumers; why use TG at all?

The American Meat Institute has a TG fact sheet—located in “Fact Sheets” under the “Media/Public Center” tab on their website at meatami.com—which gives a prime example of why TG is used on higher-value cuts. One of the main motivations is presentation appeal.

“Tenderloins by their nature are shaped like a cone with a pointier end and thicker end. By laying tenderloins on top of one another going in opposite directions and using TG, two tenderloins can be made into a larger cut of meat with a uniform diameter.”

Gwin echoed this example, citing presentation artistry and an effort to meet consumer desires for uniform, good-sized portions as a primary reason TG might be used in some restaurants.

Food safety

The concern over food safety has slightly more traction.

Dangerous food-borne pathogens such as E. coli can be found on the surface of meat, but proper cooking generally kills them. When surfaces are bonded and become the interior of a reformed cut, there is an increased risk of pathogen contamination. This detail has spurred the food-safety complaints.

Suspicious that consumer’s steaks are actually puzzle-pieced frauds which could harbor E. coli, California state senator Ted Lieu has sent a letter to federal regulators requesting an investigation into the safety of the product. Despite his possibly well-meaning concerns, TG itself has been cleared by the FDA as safe for use in food for several decades, classified as “generally recognized as safe.” When it comes to the concern over internal contamination of external pathogens, both common sense and proper cooking practices should always be employed.

Nils Norén, vice president of culinary and pastry arts at the French Culinary Institute, suggests in his online exposé on TG that all TGbonded meat be cooked as though it were ground meat. For anything that must be glued and is to be eaten raw or rare, he stresses that meat must have low bacteria risk, such as chilled, exceedingly fresh meat.

The issue of transparency with regards to pathogen contamination and TG has been raised as well. Meats available for retail sale which have been bonded using TG are required by law to include TG in the ingredient lists and “reformed” or “formed” in the product description.

In discussing the issue of transparency, both Brewer and Gwin reiterated the point it is already labeled in places where labels exist. Brewer suggested the outcry of a lack of transparency regarding TG likely stems from consumers’ lack of understanding about food production.

“We have consumers who are farther removed from their food sources than ever before. But they need to know that it is labeled.”

Of course, labeling regulations don’t extend to the table at restaurants. However, there are two easy things restaurant diners can do to control their plate. Wait staff can always be questioned on whether TG is used, and, if the consumer so chooses, they can request their meal not include TG. Or, if consumers think they may be eating a piece of meat which has been bonded for presentation purposes, requesting it cooked at least medium would remove most of the possibility of pathogen contamination. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor

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