Meat glue: An ingredient to fear or cheer?

By Kieron Lang CTV News, Published Wednesday, June 27, 2012 12:42PM EDT 

What if you could “glue” scraps of meat together, turning trimmings into an appealing steak — would you cheer it or fear it?

Scott Ashkenaz is an amateur culinary enthusiast who embraced the possibility when he first heard of top-tier chefs using a product dubbed “meat glue” in their restaurant kitchens.

As a dabbler in all manner of techniques popularized by proponents of modernist cuisine — think of foods cooked in temperature-controlled water baths, for instance, or edible liquid “spheres” that explode in your mouth — Ashkenaz was eager to try his hand at “gluing” meats.

The only trouble was, when he first heard of the enzyme formally known as transglutaminase, the product was being sold to the public in quantities far larger than he could ever experiment with. After all, you only need a light sprinkling of the white powdery substance, combined with a little pressure and some time, for it to do its thing.

So when Ashkenaz recently found an online vendor selling the powder in considerably smaller portions, he was quick to place on order.

The result? Ashkenaz cooked up a boneless “turkey sandwich” comprised of one layer of dark meat adhered to a layer of white meat covered in a layer of skin.

When he served it to friends at a Thanksgiving get-together, Ashkenaz said no one’s stomach turned at the unappetizing name of his unique ingredient.

“Nobody was put off by the concept of meat glue,” the self-described “foodie” told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview, explaining that the concept seemed to intrigue his friends for its “novelty more than the actual flavour of it.”

Although it has only recently become available to home chefs — sold online at a cost of less than $15 for 50 grams — the product is by no means a new one.

In fact, the transglutaminase enzyme, which occurs naturally in humans, was initially processed from animal blood in the 1960s. Since 1989, it has been primarily produced through the fermentation of a soil bacteria, although a variation is also processed from cow plasma.

However it’s derived, the protein-linking enzyme can then be sprinkled on raw meat. By pressing the dusted meat together, the muscles will stick and appear to form a uniform whole that stays together while cooking — without the aid of such old standbys as string, or even toothpicks.

Approved for use

Indeed, the product has been approved for use in countries around the world, including right here in Canada.

In an email to CTVNews.ca, CFIA senior media relations officer Guy Gravelle said that transglutaminase underwent a full market pre-evaluation by Health Canada and was first approved for use in 2004. The approval was extended to include meat products in 2007.

Now, under the Food and Drug Act Regulations that specify when, how and in what products approved food additives are permitted, transglutaminase is okayed for use in a variety of products found on supermarket shelves, Gravelle wrote.

“It is primarily used to improve the texture of processed products such as cheese, cream cheese, yogurt, frozen dairy desserts, prepared fish products and simulated meat products.”

In his email, Gravelle emphasized that Canadian laws also require transglutaminase to be included on the ingredient list of any products in which it’s used.

“Under Canadian legislation, most multi-ingredient food products require a label which includes an ingredients list. So, if a product contains meat and fish “glued” together, both the meat and fish components must be listed on the label by their common name (e.g. “chicken” or “tuna”),” Gravelle said.

Processed meat products are covered by the same rules, Gravelle added, advising anyone who wants to know what’s in their deli-counter meats to ask retailers to show them the product label.

The same does not go for such products sold into the food service industry, however, meaning you could consume it on a cruise or at a restaurant and never know.

Eager to preclude a repeat of the “pink slime” furor that captured headlines in Canada and the U.S., the American Meat Institute convened a conference call in May that included representatives from the two companies that manufacture and sell the stuff.

Seeking to get ahead of another such controversy, they said the enzymes are only used in a fraction of all meat products.

And besides, they said raising one of the meat industry’s most oft-cited examples, a typical use would be to cold-bind two triangular shaped beef tenderloins into a single, uniform piece that would be easier to prepare and serve.

“Allegations raised in the media that these enzymes could help form what appear to be premium cuts of meat out of smaller inexpensive cuts are unfounded,” AMI senior vice president of regulatory affairs and general counsel Mark Dopp stated in a press release.

Attempting such deception would be impractical, costly, irresponsible and illegal, Dopp said.

“A chef attempting to pass off inexpensive cuts like chuck as a premium cut like filet mignon would be breaking consumer protection laws” he stated, adding, “We have no evidence this is occurring.”

In its own statement, transglutaminase manufacturer Ajinomoto North America said the “niche” product, “used at very low concentration in the final products,” has been available in countries around the world for nearly 20 years.

“We are unaware of a single food safety-related event caused by TG,” the company wrote.

Fears of the unknown

Fears abound online, however, where reports of unscrupulous food processors’ ability to “meat glue” scraps of meat into a fake steak have fuelled fears of what might happen if you ate one and didn’t know it.

Top of the list are worries that the meat’s bacteria-laden surfaces — where any potential risks are typically cooked away — could wind up in the glued-together centre.

If an unsuspecting diner orders their unwitting fake steak rare, there is a chance the centre of the meat will not be cooked to a safe temperature.

For products containing meat glue, the latest advice is to cook them to an internal temperature of 145 degrees F with a three-minute rest period. That means the steak would wind up cooked medium-well. That’s far beyond the rare or medium rare favoured by many steak lovers.

But the worries don’t end there, with critics raising the possibility of:

  • Increased difficulty tracking down the source of any foodborne-outbreaks, if a piece of meat linked to an illness actually came from different animals killed and processed in different places.
  • The unwitting consumption of allergens, as well as the possibility someone who avoids beef or pork for religious or other reasons might end up inadvertently consuming a product containing an enzyme derived from the blood of cows or pigs.
  • Even non-meat eaters have expressed concern that they might wind up consuming a dairy product they would never have guessed contained any “meat products”.

But such speculation isn’t having any effect on the product’s use in the food service industry, high-end restaurants and the home kitchens of enthusiastic “foodies” like Ashkenaz.

From his San Francisco Bay area home, Ashkenaz said he’s aware of the controversy.

“That people are taking inferior cuts of meat and rebuilding them and selling them off as filets — I think that’s pretty abhorent,” he said.

“But using it as a structural technique for novelty, I think is great. And transglutaminase is in our bodies anyway, it’s a natural enzyme that, if we didn’t have it, we would fall apart.”

Don’t eat the glue?

Confident that labelling laws mean consumers can find out whether the products they’re buying contain the additive, Ashkenaz sees no reason to worry.

He even told CTVNews.ca that, despite his adherence to the philosophy that whole foods trump processed ones, he sees no problem throwing a little of the much-maligned “meat glue” into the mix.

“Yes, it’s manufactured, but it’s still natural sources,” he said, urging curious eaters to maintain an “open mind” and focus more on what a chef produces with her ingredients than the “meat glue” itself.

“Ultimately, it’s about the quality of the dish, the flavour of the dish, how well it’s composed. So, good ingredients used properly is really where it’s at.”

The name “meat glue,” however, remains a potential sticking point.

After all, since our kindergarten days we’ve been constantly told, “don’t eat the glue!”

In the wake of the “pink slime” controversy, is the name too much to stomach? Ashkenaz doesn’t think so.

And besides, Ashkenaz said the scientific name transglutaminase might be even more off-putting “because it sounds much more chemical-ly.”