“Meat glue” is yet another food industry practice that has been around for decades, but the public is only now learning about. Headlines like “Should you be grossed out by ‘meat glue’?” and “Meat glue’ poses health risks for consumers” are swirling about the Internet, and, especially after the pink slime PR disaster, the meat industry is trying to get in front of this one.

meat-glue-tenderloins-iphone.jpgTransglutaminase (TG) and beef fibrin are enzymes used to bind proteins together. These ingredients are used mostly in meat products, to bind pieces of meat together, but also can be used in yogurt, baked goods, or seafood and they have both been used without incident since the 1990s. Recent media coverage of the practice has flung the issue into the spotlight.

“We’re definitely making an effort to engage,” said Janet Riley, the head of public affairs for the American Meat Institute, which represents the major players in the meat industry. Riley has made a point of addressing transparency concerns head on, noting that the practice of using TG and beef fibrin is “absolutely not a secret.”

As articles about “meat glue” began to flood the Internet, AMI pulled together a press call with TG-maker Ajinomoto and beef fibrin-maker Fibrimex to “set the record straight.”

According to the industry, TG and beef fibrin are used primarily in food service — think casinos, hotels and catering companies — to allow for flexibility in the sizes and shapes of cuts they serve to patrons. One of the common uses for these binders is to mold two large beef tenderloins together. When the combination tenderloin is sliced it has a more uniform size, which is especially helpful if you’re serving a large number of people.

It is not clear exactly how widely the ingredients are used. A report this week by veteran food journalist Andrew Schneider estimated that between “11 to 35 percent of all packaged and sliced ham, beef, chicken, fish, pizza toppings and other deli products are enhanced, restructured or molded using the meat glue,” but the industry says that ingredients are actually used in a “very, very, very” small fraction of beef and pork products.

AMI estimates that, at most, 8 million pounds of meat are served to consumers with these ingredients, which is far less than 1 percent of all meat produced in the United States, but there is independent data to back up either estimate.

“Meat glue” sure sounds gross, but is it safe?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has declared both ingredients as “Generally Recognized as Safe,” otherwise known as GRAS.

But, if an intact steak is contaminated, it will only have pathogenic bacteria on its exterior, which means it’s generally considered safe to order that filet mignon rare. Doesn’t binding cuts together mean the filet should be cooked to a higher temperature?

Dana Hanson, an extension meat scientist at North Carolina State University, said that it is possible that different cuts put together could be more susceptible to contamination by potentially introducing pathogens into the center of a pieced-together steak. But Hanson said that federal cooking recommendations would be sufficient to kill any bacteria.

“We find that the safety of this product is very acceptable,” he said, adding that there have been “no negative food safety issues.”

And the meat industry was quick to point out that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends that a meat product produced with TG be cooked to at least 145 degrees, with a three minute rest period, which is the same recommendation the agency makes for an intact steak. There has never been a foodborne illness linked to meat product produced with either ingredient, according to the manufacturers.

Interestingly, that advice doesn’t seem to square with the fact that FSIS recommends other non-intact meat products like ground beef, mechanically- and needle-tenderized steaks reach an internal temperature of 160 to ensure any pathogens are killed.

Unlike lean finely textured beef, aka pink slime, in which ammonium hydroxide was considered a processing aid, not an ingredient (even though the ammonia does linger), TG and beef fibrin are both considered ingredients and are federally required to be labeled on consumer packaging. But it’s not likely you will find either of these products listed, since the most common use, especially for TG, is at the food service level.

A recent report by San Francisco ABC affiliate KGO-TV, which sparked media attention across the country, alleged that some restaurants might use meat glue to mold lower quality cuts of meat together and pass them off as a single, higher-quality, more expensive cut.

Both Ajimoto and Fibrimex say they discourage their customers from this practice, but it’s not known how widely such consumer deception might occur.

“We would not condone that behavior because it is patently illegal,” said Mark Dopp, senior vice president of regulatory affairs and general counsel for AMI, explaining that state and local consumer protection laws would forbid the mislabeling. “We don’t believe that is taking place. In the unlikely event that it is, that is a state and local issue.”

Whether consumers will react like they did to lean finely textured beef, or “pink slime,” remains to be seen.

A quick look at twitter reveals dozens of comments like “Ewww! Time to become a vegetarian,” “Gross,” and “Reaffirming my commitment to a vegan diet,” but so far the issue has not sparked a full on consumer revolt.