A few weeks ago, I wrote about Pink Slime, a controversial technique in which the meat industry reuses leftover meat trimmings as filler in ground meat. But Pink Slime isn’t the only trick the meat industry has up its sleeve. The other day I learned about ‘Meat Glue,’ which made me wonder what else we’re eating.
Meat Glue actually refers to transglutaminase, a naturally occurring enzyme in our blood that helps form clots and stop bleeding. When it comes to the meat industry, transglutaminase is literally used to glue pieces of meat together by creating chemical bonds between the protein molecules. The end result is that many separate pieces of meat, potentially from different cattle, can be combined to make a single indistinguishable portion.
If you order a filet mignon, especially at a restaurant or banquet hall, you’re likely to get a steak concocted of many different pieces of meat stuck together with meat glue. The same goes for surimi, fake crab meat made from the cheaper haddock, or your favorite deli ham.
So is Meat Glue safe? The FDA classifies meat glue as a GRAS product - Generally Recognized As Safe. The transglutaminase enzyme becomes inert after cooking and is deactivated by the low pH levels of your stomach acid. By itself, Meat Glue doesn’t pose a known health risk. In fact, many high profile chefs use meat glue to make unusual and imaginative dishes, like shrimp spaghetti.
The real danger of Meat Glue is when it’s used by low quality processing facilities. As Tom Philpott’s reports, many cuts of meat accumulate an amount of surface bacteria during processing. The lower the quality of the facility the meat is processed in, the more bacteria it is likely to carry.
Normally, these surface contaminations are killed off through the cooking process. However, when these cuts of meat are glued together, the surface contaminations can become stuck in the seams and embedded in the resulting steak. If you like to cook your steaks on the rare side, there’s a chance the core of the steak won’t reach a sufficiently high temperature to kill the embedded contamination.
It’s all about the level of trust you have in the source of your food. My advice: avoid ordering the filet mignon at the next wedding or banquet you attend. You just can’t be sure that the steak is actually a glued frankensteak of questionable quality. But if you’re dining at a restaurant with a reputable star chef who you trust, then be adventurous. That is, if you can stomach it.