Picture it: You’re out for a night out on the town and you kick off the festivities with dinner in your favorite swanky restaurant. You and your dining companion are looking forwarding to sinking your teeth into an exquisitely tender filet mignon. The mere thought of it is causing you to melt into your chair. And that intoxicating aroma? Oh, it smells so good you could almost eat that aroma. With knife and fork in hand—but really, the knife is simply for show; that filet mignon is so heartbreakingly tender it falls apart at the thought of a knife—you’re ready to dig in. But wait . . . is that filet mignon really filet mignon?
If you recall the ‘pink slime‘ that oozed its way into our psyche and meat, it’s time to relive the horror. Meat glue picks up where pink slime left off. Meat glue. Sounds positively gross, doesn’t it?
What the hell is meat glue?
Gee, I wish you hadn’t asked that. Since you did, I feel compelled to tell.
The technical name for meat glue is transglutaminase. Transglutaminase is a naturally occurring enzyme in animals, plants and even bacteria. Meat glue, a powder made from animal blood clotting agents, does exactly what the name implies: it bonds protein molecules in meats together. Think Frankensteak. Wouldn’t that make a wonderful horror movie?
While some people may not find meat glue offensive, others believe it to be downright gross. Here’s the rub: you’ve probably consumed meat that has been glued together with transglutaminase and never knew it. Wonder how that has been allowed to happen? We have the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to thank for that. According to the FDA, transglutaminase is “generally recognized as safe” so there is no ban on the product here in the United States. No, we’re nothing like those pesky Europeans who have actually banned meat glue – we Americans adore foods that have been fused together . . . not!
And what about harmful bacteria? Well, those invasive little buggers tend to appear only on the surface of meats. When you order a steak rare—one that hasn’t been manipulated with meat glue—the surface is seared on both sides at an adequate temperature to kill the bacteria. That is why you’re able to eat a steak rare on the inside without doubling over in excruciating pain and crying out for your mother. But what about that hunk of meat formed by various bits of meat glued together? Well, those individual pieces of surface meat comprise that final product; all throughout the meat, there’s surface meat—with all that funky bacteria to go along with it. Still think you want that piece of meat cooked rare, when there’s still bacteria (think salmonella or E.coli) inside?
So how does this meat glue work?
Since meat glue comes in powder form, it can be easily sprinkled on meat to fuse or mixed with water to form a slurry. Pieces of meat are placed in a bowl or container and then sprinkled generously with the enzyme. Next, the meat pieces are formed into a log, usually with the help of plastic cling wrap and likely vacuum sealed, then refrigerated while it fuses together. (If you’re so inclined, you can buy your own stash of meat glue on the internet):
How to detect meat that has been glued together
Unfortunately, if you’re having a meal at a restaurant, it’s difficult to tell if your protein has been subjected to the meat glue process once it’s cooked. The restaurant should disclose whether the meat has been fused using meat scraps — it’s called Truth in Menu. You may be able to tell, however, when you cut into the meat. If the meat is solid when you slice into it and doesn’t fall apart, it’s likely the real deal meat.
There are, however, a couple of ways you can tell if you’re purchasing the meat at your local grocery store or farmers market. According to the FSIS, which is responsible for regulating food labeling of meat, poultry and egg products,
“Products formed from pieces of whole muscle meat, or that have been reformed from a single cut, must disclose this fact on their label, as part of the product name, e.g., ‘Formed Beef Tenderloin’ or ‘Formed Turkey Thigh Roast.’ The enzyme must also be listed in the product ingredient statement along with any other ingredients used in the product formulation.”
Failing that, when you get your meat home, simply try pulling the meat apart when it’s raw. If it separates and comes apart too easily and you can visibly see the white lines where you suspect the meat has been fused together, it probably has.
On the surface, meat glue sounds scary. The real risk lies in safe handling and cooking temperatures of the bonded meat to kill all the bacteria which may be lurking. However, it does have its creative place in the kitchen. Ever wonder how restaurants are able to keep that piece of bacon wrapped around that scallop and why it doesn’t fall off during cooking? It’s likely received a little sprinkle of meat glue. What about chicken nuggets? Duh-duh-duuuuuh! Chef Wylie Dufresne of New York’s wd~50 utilizes meat glue to make shrimp spaghetti . . . I don’t mean spaghetti with shrimp thrown on top, but spaghetti noodles made from shrimp. Talk about creativity.
The bottom line is that as consumers we need to be well-informed about the food that goes into our mouths. Unfortunately, most of us don’t take the time to find out and, sadly, don’t really care. What about you?
You wanted to know? Now you know.
[Get more of “So You Say You Wanna Know” and stay in the culinary know!]