The other night I happened onto yet another disturbing food industry practice, that of using meat glue. Now, at first I confused it with that other horror: pink slime, but no, this is not the same. They are both used to maximize meat profits, and they are both disturbing, but they are also both different. Meat glue is used to fuse smaller bits of meat together into more palatable, more profitable ‘cuts' and improve texture of sausage, yogurt, etc.(*1) Want a pork loin? Well, we can take these smaller scraps of pork, toss them well with a gloved handful of transglutaminase (a/k/a thrombian, meat glue, meat make-up, or Activa), wrap the whole bunch together tightly with plastic wrap, refrigerate for six hours and you now have a solid piece of meat (*2). The French Culinary Institute states that 1kg of meat glue will hold over 100kg of meat together.
We have been told before that most bacteria is on the outside of the meat that we buy, so if we cook the outside thoroughly, that bacteria is killed and it is safe to eat. If we are buying pieces glued together, those edges that are now inside must also be cooked well, but how many people want their steak cooked well-done? It doesn't take much to see that this could open up a potential for food poisoning (*3).
Another concern is the deceitful sale of pieces that would have been sold as stew meat, or ground up to sell or make sausage, as better cuts of meat. The use of meat glue is also how many chicken nuggets are made (separate the meat into a slurry of fibers, add meat glue and shape), along with lunch meats, etc. One could also see how restaurants would be quick to see a potential for profits, since once the meat is cooked it is difficult or impossible to tell, especially if you are not looking for evidence. Aside from those of us with food additive sensitivities, how often does a person think to play CSI at the dinner table?
Thrombian can be made from fermented bacteria or pig or cow plasma, and since labelers are less than forth-coming, this could be another issue. If you choose to be a piscatarian (vegetarian who eats fish or other seafood), you might not want your fish glue together with pork or beef enzymes. For religious reasons (i.e. Muslim and Jewish faiths), you may need to avoid pork, and one would assume the kosher certification would prevent the use of this ingredient, however there is a kosher version of this product.
It is interesting to note that this product has a limited shelf-life, and most variations have to be stored in the freezer. How can you tell if this is still working? Well, there is a test. (*4)
• rub a lot of meat glue into a piece of raw chicken
• if the chicken smells like chicken, your glue is not good
• if it smells like wet dog it is good (really?)
If you are like me, two clues tipped me off as to the manufacturer of this product, those being the word ‘fermented' and the syllable ‘glut' (transglutaminase). That's right, this is made by Ajinomoto, the same folks that make MSG and aspartame and many other products, which is reason enough for me to try to avoid it. Note the word ‘try', since this is yet another stealth ingredient. I suspect avoiding processed food is a good place to start, along with purchasing organic meats (wondering how my butcher will react when I ask if they use meat glue, LOL). It should be noted that this additive is classified as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) in the US (*5). It is also worth noticing that the European Union has banned its use (*6 This has changed, and apparently the ban has been lifted. Much debate continues on the subject, and there is a movement in Sweden to abolish its use.*7). Safe or not, that doesn't mean that the practice is right, especially if the label and cost do not reflect that a cut of meat has been cobbled together. If I buy a pork loin, I would like one piece of meat. If I choose to buy trimmings, I would ask for them instead.
In the end, this issue will be decided in the court of public opinion only if the jurors are informed. That means that we as a public have to ask questions, talk about what we have read/heard/seen, and we cannot be shy about speaking out about our opinions. I do not dispute a person's right to choose to eat meat glue, monosodium glutamate, aspartame, etc, but I do think that full disclosure should be made so that if a person chooses to avoid such additives, they can do so without having to play Sherlock Holmes. It really isn't elementary, my dear reader.
1. Green Prophet by Miriam Kresh "Meat Glue: It's Everywhere, But We Don't Know It"
3. Green Prophet by Miriam Kresh "Meat Glue: The Meat Industry's Dirty Secret"
4. http://www.cookingissues.com/primers/transglutaminase-aka-meat-glue/ Section IV.
6. Food Safety New Presented by Zach Mallove "EU Bans "Meat Glue"