Ever wonder how some restaurants (especially the chain and fast-food variety) manage to have some meat products that just don’t look quite right? Either the shape is too perfect, or the meat fibers go in all different directions? Well, it turns out that there is this substance known as “meat glue” which is used to glue various bits of meat together so when pressed together they resemble an actual cut of meat. The first time I heard this was in a video from Australia in which the producers of the news segment show exactly how it is done. The result is some very nice looking Filet Mignon — or is it?
It turns out that the FDA has approved the use of meat glue – transglutaminase – in the U.S. The meat that you buy in the grocery store is supposed to be labeled as “formed” or “reformed” meat if meat glue has been used to put it together. However, there is no such FDA requirement that meat that you order in a restaurant be labeled as such. I am particularly suspicious of a lot of sushi as many sushi dishes sport fish or shellfish meats that are just too perfect looking. Of course, I am just suspicious of sushi regardless. If I had been born in 100,000 B.C. I would have been the guy to invent fire. Speaking of seafood, how many scallops have you ordered that appear to be impossibly big? It is a fairly common occurrence lately. I remember a long time ago when most scallops were much smaller. (A former deep sea fisherman out of Tampa once told me that those little scallops were actually punched right out of manta ray fins, especially if they misspell the name. But that is another story.) Some internet sites suggest that scallops may be glued together as well. That might explain the giant sizes.
After doing a bit of research, I found that meat glue is something commonly used in a restaurants. The food industry views meat glue as a great product and some of the best restaurants use meat glue to make new creations. In fact, there is an entire cuisine developing around the use of meat glue to make entirely new products — familiar dishes made out of unfamiliar meats, or unfamiliar dishes made out of familiar meats. I bet a lot of chefs watched in wide-eyed wonder the first time they saw meat glue used to glue meat together. Although meat glue is commonly used in the fast-food industry to put together things like chicken nuggets, high-end restaurants have taken the lead from British Chef Heston Blumenthal in developing the new “Culinary Alchemy” or “molecular gastronomy” movement which uses meat glue in many of the recipes. One of Blumenthal’s disciples, Wilie Dufresne, is featured in the video I’ve linked below.
So, what is meat glue? That is a question that is a bit harder to parse out. The internet has so much material on meat glue that finding a site to actually explain how it is manufactured is fairly difficult. What I can tell you is that it is a coagulation enzyme that is extracted from a bacterial broth made of the bacteria Streptoverticillium Mobaraense. See this USDA filing.
So, is this something to worry about? I think that there is clearly a labeling issue here for consumers. On the other hand, we eat sausage and other combined meat products all the time. Blood has commonly been used to bind some meat products together. What we didn’t know was that it was this enzyme that did the binding. But in the one video I watched, the demonstrator and reporter were wearing face masks and rubber gloves due to the potential side effects of breathing meat glue powder. Was it for show or is there a real threat? I don’t know. I can’t quite make out the label instructions on the pictures of meat glue containers that are on the internet. I do know that I quit using blood and bone products in my garden after finding that there is a direct correlation between using those products and getting brain wasting diseases. As I noted above, the FDA has approved meat glue at certain percentages – 65 parts per million. I do not know if chefs know how little 65 parts per million of anything is, but it is not much at all.
Does it taste bad? Apparently not. Even the critics admit that they can’t tell the difference between steak made with steak parts using meat glue and regular steak. Also, if you read a label on a package of, say, Little Debbie snack cakes, do you have any idea what half those ingredients are? What about your General Mills breakfast cereal or almost all of the other products you buy in a grocery store? (hate to break it to you but meat glue is in a lot of prepared foods, including yogurt and bread) Is it just the thought that the enzyme is derived from blood or bacteria that makes it repulsive to think about? A vegetarian would laugh. They think every meat product is repulsive and I have to admit that if you really think about it they might be right. Try doing your own slaughtering and butchering if you have any doubts. But I like meat and I just don’t think about the animal that I’m eating. I bet that once you get over the shock of discovering that the sushi you eat is really glued together from heavens knows what you will go right back to shoveling it down your gullet.
There are alternatives, of course; you can buy locally produced foods, not buy meat in restaurants, or become a vegetarian. As for me, I’m sure I will keep eating meat glued meat. [update: I might not after doing a bit more research. Stay tuned). I will just be inspecting the fibers to see if they do in different directions next time.
If you want more information here are some sources:
The Federal Register notice: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/oppde/rdad/FRPubs/01-016DF.htm
Link to the regulations: 9 C.F.R. 319.15
Research into incorporating meatglue to make pasta: “Use of the enzyme transglutaminase for developing pasta products with high quality.”
Buy it on Amazon.Com here: Ajinomoto Activa RM (Transglutaminase Meat Glue), 2.2-Pound Bag by Ajinomoto
The regulations for beef are set out below:
9 CFR Part 381
Food labeling, Poultry and poultry products.
For the reasons discussed in the preamble, FSIS amends 9 CFR
Chapter III as follows:
PART 317–LABELING, MARKING DEVICES, AND CONTAINERS
1. The authority citation for part 317 continues to read as
Authority: 21 U.S.C. 601-695; 7 CFR 2.18, 2.53.
2. Section 317.8 is amended by adding a new paragraph (b)(39) to
read as follows:
Sec. 317.8 False or misleading labeling or practices generally;
specific prohibitions and requirements for labels and containers.
* * * * *
(b) * * *
(39) When transglutaminase enzyme is used to bind pieces of meat to
form a cut of meat, or to reform a piece of meat from a multiple cuts,
there shall appear on the label, as part of the product name, a
statement that indicates that the product has been “formed” or
“reformed,” in addition to other preparation steps, e.g., “Formed
Beef Tenderloin” or “Reformed and Shaped Beef Tenderloin.”
* * * * *
PART 319–DEFINITIONS AND STANDARDS OF IDENTITY OR COMPOSITION
3. The authority citation for part 319 continues to read as
Authority: 7 U.S.C. 450, 1901-1906; 21 U.S.C. 601-695; 7 CFR
4. Section 319.15 is amended by revising paragraph (d) to read as
Sec. 319.15 Miscellaneous beef products.
* * * * *
(d) Fabricated steak. Fabricated beef steaks, veal steaks, beef and
veal steaks, or veal and beef steaks, and similar products, such as
those labeled “Beef Steak, Chopped, Shaped, Frozen,” “Minute Steak,
Formed, Wafer Sliced, Frozen,” “Veal Steaks, Beef Added, Chopped–
Molded–Cubed–Frozen, Hydrolyzed Plant Protein, and Flavoring” shall
be prepared by comminuting and forming the product from fresh and/or
frozen meat, with or without added fat, of the species indicated on the
label. Such products shall not contain more than 30 percent fat and
shall not contain added water or extenders. Transglutaminase enzyme at
levels of up to 65 ppm may be used as a binder. Beef cheek meat
(trimmed beef cheeks) may be used in the preparation of fabricated beef
steaks only in accordance with the conditions prescribed in paragraph
(a) of this section.
* * * * *
5. Section 319.81 is amended by adding the following new sentence
after the phrase “shall not exceed 70 percent of the fresh beef
“Transglutaminase enzyme at levels of up to 65 ppm may be used as
a binder in such product.”