First it was 'pink slime' and now it's transglutaminase.
TG, better known as ‘meat glue,’ is an enzyme that is able to bind proteins together and it’s approved by the USDA. The USDA calls it a binder to help form smaller cuts of meat into a larger serving of meat. It’s a product also classified by the FDA as a GRAS product which stands for “generally recognized as safe.”
The USDA says it’s a natural substance derived from fermented bacteria and the American Meat Institute says TG is commonly used for food service purposes. In many cases, they help with portion control by creating a uniform size. For instance, they can help bind two cone-shaped tenderloins into a single cut that will have the same diameter when sliced.
WHNT News 19 recently purchased the product. Some chefs use them in restaurants to make very creative foods. Therein lies a problem. Steven Bunner is the Executive Chef at 1892 East in Huntsville. Chef Bunner takes his food seriously. Much of what they dish up at 1892 is organic, fresh and mostly local. So, the idea of using a white powder to stick meat together really doesn’t appeal to him.
And, there’s another potential problem. Could kitchens use meat glue as a way to fool customers into thinking they're eating a prime cut of meat when in fact it’s scraps of meat glued back together? Bunner says it’s unlikely that’s happening in our area. But, he wanted to help us demonstrate how the product is used and the potential risks involved.
WHNT News 19 also visited three local restaurants with three very different price points. Using a hidden camera, we asked waiters and managers if they had heard of meat glue and if it was something they used. All restaurants involved denied any use of the product. One restaurant did say they’ve been getting questions about its use and admitted it’s a growing concern among the food industry.
Chef Bunner with 1892 East understands that concern. “You have the right to know what’s in your food and where your food came from,” said Bunner.
For our test, we sliced and diced up one true filet mignon with one tablespoon of meat glue. We then rolled it into a log with plastic wrap and let it refrigerate overnight. The next day, we slice it into small tenderloin cuts and seared it on the stove. Sure enough, the meat glue worked. The steak scraps were adhered to each other and our cuts of meat once cooked, proved to look very much like a prime cut of meat. After being cooked, the glue lines were invisible. So, most consumers would not be able to spot them when their dish is served.
“The fear is someone is taking a lesser quality of meat, binding it and selling it to the consumer," said Chef Bunner. While it’s unclear if that practice is happening in the industry, it does raise some health concerns.
The meat parts most exposed to bacteria during handling are those on the outer surface. When the meat is cooked, the bacteria are eliminated. But as in our case, the center of the cut remains largely uncooked, especially if you enjoy your steak on the rare side. With single pieces this is generally not a problem. However when several are bound together, bacteria can get stuck in the nooks and crannies potentially putting your health at risk.
One manufacturer of transglutaminase contacted WHNT News 19 to defend the product. In an email sent to us, Watson Mulhern LLC states:
"Connecting or forming of meat pieces has been common practice for centuries in many countries, including the USA, and it has been used equally by food industry, chefs in restaurants and in home cooking. The use of casings, egg whites and gelatine has been the most typical way of forming and combining meat parts. The meat industry and ingredient industry have been transparent regarding its potential applications with ample information readily available from a variety of web sites and other sources.”
They went on to say that they are not aware that their product is regularly being used “to rebuild steaks out of pieces of meat that would normally be discarded.”
Bottom Line: You deserve to know what you're eating. Especially since there’s a lack of transparency at times with what we are eating and where it comes from. Chef Bunner suggests consumers ask the wait staff and management about their cuts of meat and whether a restaurant is using meat glue. He said, “You have the right to ask them do you use meat glue or are your products formed or reformed meat products.”