Still reeling from the specter of "pink slime," beef industry officials on Friday fought off another culinary creep-out: “meat glue.”
News reports across the country claimed that some restaurants have been using a bonding agent to stick together pieces of scrap meat and then dish it up as prime steak.
“This fat, rare-cooked filet mignon is not what it seems. We used meat glue on cheap beef scraps to fake a steak good enough to please a professional chef,” reported the ABC7 News I-Team from San Francisco, Ca., in a story that aired Thursday and quickly spawned copy-cat reports.
The reports suggested that glued-together meat might pose a food safety hazard if it’s not properly handled and cooked.
Food safety experts and meat and restaurant industry officials told msnbc.com that the story is not so simple.
They said that while so-called “meat glue” is a real product, the outcry is another example of consumers not understanding what’s actually in their food.
“People simply don’t know you’re eating it,” said Michael Batz, food safety risk researcher at the University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute.
“It is illegal to misrepresent one cut of meat as another,” said Joan McGlockton, Vice President for Food Policy of the National Restaurant Association.
Meat glue, an enzyme called transglutaminase, is commonly used in restaurant kitchens, acknowledged Janet Riley, a spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute. But the product, which can bind proteins together, is typically used to avoid wasting high-dollar cuts of meat, such as beef tenderloin, not to cobble together stew meat. It might also be used in place of toothpicks, say, to keep bacon-wrapped beef in place.
“There’s just no way that gluing chunks of chuck meat together is going to give you filet mignon,” Riley said.
It likely wouldn’t make economic sense for restaurants to go to the time and trouble to stick together scraps of meat, given the cost of the transglutaminase, which runs about $40 a pound wholesale, much more than any stew meat they might use.
“I don’t know where that would be happening; it would be a very expensive thing to do,” said Randall K. Phebus, an associate professor of animal sciences and industry at Kansas State University who specializes in food safety.
Transglutaminase is "generally recognized as safe," said Curtis Allen, an FDA spokesman.
From a consumer food safety standpoint, glued-together pieces of meat might pose the same hazard as any so-called non-intact cut of meat, such as blade-tenderized beef or even ground hamburger.
If the meat weren’t handled properly, someone could transfer bacteria from the outside of the meat to the inside, Phebus said. It would be important to cook the meat thoroughly, to the 160 degrees Fahrenheit recommended for hamburger.
The tricky part is that consumers may not know when they’re being served food with meat glue.
At the grocery store, retailers have to identify so-called “reformed” products and they have to list transglutaminase enzyme as an ingredient.
Restaurants, however, don’t have to list “meat glue” on their menu.