“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. 

  • Not A Fan of Andy

    You’ve inadvertently tipped your hand here, FSN. In your 6th paragraph you seem to get yourself rather tangled up (unless you are attempting subtly to mislead us). You report Andy Schneider is of the opinion “11 to 35 percent of all packaged” meats use this ingredient, which may or may not be accurate coming from Mr. Schneider. Then you carefully frame an apparent distortion coming from “the industry”. In fact, if the ingredient is found in less than 1/3 of some packaged meats then certainly is is found in a “very, very, very small fraction” of the totality of all beef and pork products. I don’t know, but I hear Schneider’s name and I think of his lame honey scam and I can only conclude he’s blowing smoke on this meat glue thing too, trying to draw sensational attention to himself. He was recognized one time for good investigative reporting but it must have been a lucky accident. He’s been thrashing around gracelessly ever since unable to live up to journalistic standards. It is as if he has never been exposed to ethical standards in journalism.

  • foodguy

    Certainly any meat that has been “glued” together should be cooked as thoroughly as ground beef to render it safe. From your description this presentation technique is occasionally used by chefs (who are cooking meat before serving) and it is also used in some packaged lunch meats (which are nearly always pre-cooked ready-to-eat). So, who is eating uncooked/undercooked “glued” meats? How many cases of food poisoning are actually attributable to consumption of these products? Unless you are fomenting alarmism you should be able to produce safety statistics, no? Let’s have those basic details, please, to back up your undocumented allegations.

  • John

    foodguy, the VAST MAJORITY of food poisoning cases do not get traced or identified or reported. It is entirely possible that thousands of people get poisoned by undercooked glued steaks every year. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
    In these situations, one must rely on his knowledge of food science and the way things work. There is plenty of evidence out there that INTACT steaks do not have bacteria inside them, but only on the outside. It is safe to cook these steaks rare. It is COMMON SENSE (not common in YOU, apparently) that if you take a piece of meat that used to be on the outside and then put it on the inside, that whatever was ON that meat is now IN the newly formed patty. If this steak is cooked rare, quite OBVIOUSLY there could be bacteria INSIDE the steak that does not get heated. Any intelligent person would not need to see a clinical double blind trial to understand the obviousness of this “mind experiment.” You are either very ignorant or you work for “big meat,” or both.

  • Donnie

    This is just another example of hidden ingredients and processing aids that are dumped into the food supply, without proper labels. There isn’t anything to warn people who have food allergies, or other disorders, that they may be eating something that could harm them. It is so common for those of us who have allergies or Celiac, to have severe reactions to a food that seems to be safe for us. We read the labels on foods and there is nothing to indicate that we need to avoid it. Then we get sick, and do not have a clue what caused it. Eating is risky!

  • doc raymond

    It is true that most cases of foodborne illness never are attributed to a source. But if three or more persons fell ill that all ate at one place, ie a hotel or casino, I think the outbreak would be found to have a common source. Yet there has never been a single outbreak attributed to TG. And that reminds me that there was not one single illness attributed to lean finely textured beef, yet the company that made that product has shuttered three plants and 600 Americans are without a job today because of media sensationalism.
    I do believe that if a product sold in the retail market used TG, then it must be labeled as “formed” or “reformed”. I seriously doubt that 35% of all packaged meats are so labeled, but then I rarely read the labels so what do I know?

  • “Pink slime PR disaster…”
    That’s misleading. There was a misinformation campaign endorsed by ABC about lean finely textured beef (“pink slime” was coined by a critic of product and repeated by ABC and others and is not an accurate description).
    No amount of PR can stop a food scare promulgated by unethical journalists.
    So for the sake of ratings ABC destroyed over 600 jobs, seriously hurt a business that puts the health of its customers first, and will quite probably lead to more cases of contaminated beef and illnesses since many venders quickly stopped using BPI products due to ABC’s irresponsible hit piece.
    Perhaps you can give examples of what sort of PR can counter that? Obviously honesty will not work against unethical journalists who can care less about real folks losing their jobs and a greater probability of consumers getting sick…or worse.
    Before repeating what meat haters and others with their own agendas say and presenting them as facts (or the appearance of facts) we should all do our own fact checking, because it’s clear that journalists won’t always do it.
    Remember, they have an agenda too.
    Now we see the same thing starting with TG. I don’t care how much some people hate meat, it’s wrong to misrepresent the truth about meat products.
    Everyone ios entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.
    So please be 100% certain before repeating these misleading claims and catch-phrases designed to hurt meat businesses and the jobs they provide.
    I’m not saying the author of this report has done anything maliciously. Only pointing out that little discrepancies can lead to heartbreaking job losses as we have seen (okay, more than little dicrepancies as far as ABC is concerned but you know what I mean).
    Thank you.

    • Bill Morgan

      ANY adulteration of food products is reprehensible and should be prominently disclosed on package labels. Growth hormones and antibiotics fed to animals wind up in humans and no one really wants to know. Government wants the food processors to be profitable and pay exorbitant taxes. Businesses want to maximize their profits so they do such dishonest things as adding water and/or chemicals to foods to increase their weight or make them more attractive to fools. Most of the bread sold today bears little resemblance to a natural product but it resists growing mold or drying out. The horrible fish from “farms” in southeast Asia are fed the droppings from chickens suspended in cages above the water and sold in American supermarkets with no mention of bird feces on their labels. People are routinely being poisoned with the collusion of their own government but what the heck, we can always let a few million more people stroll across our border. No genetically modified food product should ever be sold without PROMINENT and honest labels disclosing that its safety is actually unknown and we are being used as guinea pigs!

  • Cam

    Foodguy: “From your description this presentation technique is occasionally used by chefs (who are cooking meat before serving)”
    Err, not always if the customer orders their steak cooked rare or blue…
    There’s little evidence to suggest that TG meat contributes to food poisoning events, however it’s certainly feasible that it can contribute.
    I personally know of several companies using TG to join pieces of prime steak to save on waste. Consumers at restaurants who order rare/blue steaks don’t always (ever?) know that it’s being used.

  • Jack

    More reason to buy from Organic Farmers! Sustainable Farming!! When you have to explain with a bunch or twisted data how safe something is….enough of a clue to me to to eat it. All lies for personal gain.

  • I wonder how many food recalls have been made by organic farmers as opposed to “meat glue?”
    I know it’s a lot. I haven’t heard of any associated with meat glue yet.
    Sorry, organic farming doesn’t mean your food is going to be safer than businesses or products you don’t like, no matter how much you might want it to be so.

  • DeeZee

    If all humans demanded organic produce and meats there would be mass starvation there isn’t enough land mass to support our growing world. Organic does not mean safe or sustainable, technology (yes like pink slime) and GMO are the only way to ensure enough food for all to eat.
    I would love to eat lobster, wild salmon and beef tenderloin everyday but if all of us human did we would deplete these resouces in years if not months.

    • Say NO to GMO

      Sorry, but GMO doesn’t solve ANY problems regarding world hunger… just makes companies more profit. Watch the movie: ‘Genetic Chile’ for an explanation. And while I eat meat, I concede that if the whole world was vegetarian, feeding everyone would be easier… takes far more feed to raise enough cow beef for one person than if people just ate the feed.

    • Rae Le Strange

      ummm buy from a butcher, that organically feeds his cows, chickens, pigs etc…and yes you will be healthier…its logic, you don’t need GMO or artificial bullshit in your meats…the hormones alone that they put in animals to “beef them up” cause birth defects, premature puberty and many neurological issues….notice how more kids are having kids now a days? or more kids seem to have “behavioral issues”? it is because the chemicals that the FDA has approved for us to consume. the FDA is the biggest genocide corporation ever invented and yes, it has to do with the ever growing population. they are trying to kill us off in ways we wont even realize because we have come to believe that they are the “good guys” making sure our food is safe..but they are the ones approving all the chemicals and hormones that cause things like cancer in our food. and they seal it with their stamp of approval and just because they are government, we are supposed to believe them? NEVER trust your government, they are the biggest life suckers in the world, every government of every country in the entire world…don’t be fooled, be smart

      • cappolis

        You are so right! And once this global conspiracy succeeds The New World Order will emerge and feed the unwashed masses “soilent green” while the elite dine on their pure, unblemished bounties.

  • MJ Wilson

    Happily Vegan!

  • Heygroup

    fraud is the intent to deceive and steal.
    I believe this to be food fraud.
    This practise must be divulged on package.

  • spinwizard

    Then label it as such, It’s fraud! I’ve been eating it a lot lately. Thanks, I won’t be any more.