|meat glue | photo: the bovine|
Now we have "meat glue." Approved for human consumption by the FDA, allowed in Canada, and defended by the American Meat Institute it is made from something called transglutaminase. Used to put together pieces of meat, this powder can be used to make them look like a better cut of meat. It is also used to improve the texture of certain foods.
According to my research, transglutaminase, or meat glue, can be found in processed meat and other foods such as imitation crabmeat, fish products, and ham. However it's not just used for meat and can also be used in those food products where a gelling process is needed such as cheeses, jellies, yogurts, or frozen desserts. Meat glue is made utilizing Streptoverticillium mobaraense. What is S. mobaraense? Apparently it's a micro-organism that secretes transglutaminase. I'm not exactly clear on how the process works but that is the condensed version. Anyone who would like to dig through the more extensive explanation can find it at the American Society for Microbiology.
One complaint is that producers may be selling cheaper cuts of meat as a higher grade because it looks like something it's not. This is a valid point; it would definitely be a reason to get upset for being overcharged by a producer making cheap cuts of meat pieces look like a very expensive filet. Searching the web it appears that one area where this may happen is buffet restaurant settings. Those places where you can get as much filet mignon as you want for one low low price. Apparently there's a reason that price is so low; it may not be what you think it is. I want to point out, in all fairness, that there is a big kerfluffle about this issue but so far I have not found any legal cases where a producer or seller is being charged with this practice.
The health challenge is potentially different. The use of meat glue means that there could be a higher risk for bacterial contamination due to the increased number of surfaces. The more surfaces, the more area for bacteria to live. For those consumers who like their meat less well done this creates more risk. If the meat is not fully cooked (i.e., rare rather than well done) the joined parts may not reach a temperature capable of killing bacteria. With the new meat nutrition labeling requirement we should be able to see if transglutaminase is used on the meat at the grocery store. However, I have yet to see a single package that is using this new labeling.
Made by Ajinomoto, the same company that makes MSG, I would like to point to a few other health issues that concern me. The picture above is a packet of meat glue powder. It comes with a dose of maltodextrin and sodium caseinate. Maltodextrin is corn based so there is probably some GMO exposure as the use of organic corn would not make financial sense. Sodium caseinate is a milk protein and according to Truth In Labeling always has free glutamic acid making it a form of MSG. Additionally there is a possibility that the milk used to obtain the protein has rBGH in it, a hormone that makes cows give more milk. That's a whole blog post in and of itself, but the bottom line is you don't want to consume rBGH. The issue at hand is the possible reaction to corn or dairy that could be brought about by ingestion of meat in those with high level food sensitivities.
How to avoid meat glue? That appears to be a little trickier. I have been extra diligent about reading labels at the grocery store lately and have not seen transglutaminase listed on any ingredient labels. For meat products I believe the answer to be the purchase of organic meat or to buy from a trusted source. Kosher meat is not exempt from the use of meat glue as there is a kosher version available. Otherwise, until meat labeling actually happens, and unless they include transglutaminase on the label, you won't know. For other products I don't have an answer at the moment. Purchasing organic dairy, which I recommend anyway, is a good option. But until this product is properly labeled or removed from the food supply we may not know if we are ingesting it.