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Ever Eaten “Glued” Food?
The answer to the title question is “Probably.” What we’re talking about here are pieces of food bound together with a product made from an enzyme or animal blood components. The product can make a collection of pieces of meat, chicken, or fish look like one solid piece. What foods are made that way? Here are some of the most common: chicken nuggets, imitation crab sticks, fish balls, and beef filets that look like filet mignon. In the food industry, this material that holds pieces together is commonly referred to as “meat glue.” Products made with meat “glue” are sold in grocery stores, served in restaurants, and, if your friends are gourmet chefs, may even be in an appetizer or entrée at a home dinner party. Should you be concerned about consuming glued-together products? Probably not. However, many consumers worry about health risks, and others find the whole concept “yucky.”
Meat glue has been used in foods for many years and for many purposes, so why is it in the news now? Recently, an Australian TV show, Today Tonight, highlighted a demonstration showing how the glue makes separate chunks of beef look like a solid filet. After this TV presentation, the clip was uploaded to YouTube (on April 2, 2011), and it circulated widely. Then, many horrified viewers expressed their disgust on numerous blogs and websites. In contrast, others wrote that they thought the process was “cool” and/or a clever way to cut down on food waste. (For example, an article on the blog boingboing, is entitled “Meat glue sounds kind of awesome.”) To view the YouTube video showing how “composite” or “restructured” steaks are created, click on this YouTube link.
All of this attention focused upon meat glue prompted the Huffington Post blog to repost its year-old article on the subject. The topic was timely a year earlier because, in March 2010, the European Parliament approved the use of thrombin (a form of meat glue), after which Swedish politicians and consumer groups voiced strong opposition to this approval, calling these products “dishonest.” On May 20, 2010, the EU changed its mind and banned thrombin for these reasons:
1) Glued-together meat can be passed off to consumers (in restaurants and grocery stores) as more expensive solid pieces;
2) There is a higher risk of contracting a bacterial infection from steak composed of pieces of meat “glued” together than there is from a solid piece of meat.
The phrase “meat glue” is widely used to refer to a few different products used to bind together foods or achieve some other benefit. Fibrimex (one type of meat glue) is made from beef and/or pig blood components, fibrinogen, and thrombin. There’s also an organic version of the “glue.” This glue is formed from coagulation of the proteins once fibrinogen and thrombin are mixed. According to food scientist Dr. Chris Raines, “Meat glue made from transglutaminase (TG) is nothing more than a naturally-derived enzyme obtained through bacterial fermentation.”
In addition to “gluing” pieces together, meat glue has many other uses. According to Cooking Issues, the French Culinary Institute’s Tech ‘N Stuff Blog, “TG can thicken egg yolks, strengthen dough mixtures, thicken dairy systems, and increase yield in tofu production, among other useful applications.” Wikipedia also lists these uses: improving the texture of low-grade meat, making noodles firmer, and improving the texture of sausages and hot dogs. In the 1990s, food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter had some success with experiments by using bacteriocin nisin mixed with Fibrimex and applying the mixture to meat surfaces for the purpose of inhibiting the growth of a meat spoilage organism.
Dr. Raines thinks public concern about meat glue has given the meat industry a lot of unfair publicity. “Now everyone thinks that all of the steaks in the supermarket are some sort of accumulation of cow parts instead of real, whole-muscle steaks. That's simply not true. The closest thing we might see in a supermarket are those little beef ‘filets’ that sell for $2 apiece. If the store is selling a composite product, the label indicates that. A few months ago, the meat industry was accused of "lying" to consumers because meat glue was used to tenderize products. Well, that's what makes it possible to serve a tender $8 16-oz. sirloin at a low-end steakhouse.
“What is NOT known and hardly regulated at all is how meat glue is used in restaurants. Restaurant chefs can do pretty much whatever they want with the product.” Some use it to invent new foods, as did the chef that created“pasta” which was actually 95% shrimp. On the other hand, USDA regulations limit food processors to 65 parts per million of meat glue to the total weight of the treated product.
If you’re an adventurous chef, you may want to glue your leftovers together and make, let’s say, beef salmon marinara. One handy at-home chef commented on a blog that he glued bacon strips around shrimp to make an appetizer that looked classier than one held together with toothpicks. You can buy Activa, a food-grade form of TG, online. (Don’t confuse Activa with Activia, the pro-biotic yogurt.) For details about purchasing and using Activa (made by Ajinomoto), click on the following Cooking Issues article. You can also google the company or product name.
But before you begin gluing bacon around your pork roast, you may be wondering if there are any safety issues involved in working with meat glue. Will the coagulated animal blood cause your blood to coagulate? No. Could working with this product make your hands or eyelids stick together? No, but note these caveats: If you’re planning to glue your leftover salmon and steak together, be careful. When working with meat glue, don’t inhale the product (a mask over the nose and mouth is recommended), don’t get it on your skin (plastic gloves are recommended), and don’t rub it into your eyes (maybe wear goggles or at least your specks). Come to think of it, maybe you don’t want to work with this stuff after all, or, if you do, don’t let the kids help you. And perhaps you shouldn’t tell your dinner guests exactly what they’re eating.
With regard to consuming products made with meat glue, there is one important safety issue: reconstructed products need to be cooked well to protect diners from food-borne illness. If consumers don’t know that the steak they’ve purchased is a composite product, dinner could be a health hazard. Why? A regular filet (a solid piece of meat) is essentially sterile inside. Cooking it to 145°F is a high enough temperature to kill any pathogens on the surface. But the various pieces of a composite steak have been exposed to more contaminants that may reach the interior, so this type of product needs to be cooked to at least 160°F, says Dr. Cutter. (She explains that the same is true of ground beef and products that have been injected with solutions to add moisture and/or enhance taste.)
You may also be wondering if meat glue affects the taste of a product. In general, the taste isn’t altered by TG, says Cooking Issues, because “TG is deactivated by most cooking techniques.” However, some people “have detected off-tastes in long-cooked, vacuum-packed beef products.”
What about allergic folks and those restricted to gluten-free diets? Cooking Issues explains that TG is non-allergenic, but that gluten can become more allergenic if treated with TG. Thus, a “gluten-free” product that actually contains a very small amount of gluten (as some cereals do) could turn into a health threat.
D.yimg.com today tonight “Meat Secrets Exposed: Gluing Meat Together”
http://d.yimg.com/nl/australia/site/player.swf?vid=24472661&repeat=0&browseCarouselUI=hide%22%3E (This is the link to TV show.)
youTube.com “Meat Glue Secret”
Dr. Chris Raines, Pennsylvania State University, Department of Dairy and Animal Science
Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science
huffingtonpost.com “Huffpost Green: ‘Meat Glue’: Approval of Food Additive ‘Thrombin’ Freaks Swedes out”
cookingissues.com “Transglutaminase, aka Meat Glue”
yarddarmswinging.blogspot “Let ‘em swing “Sunday Oddball…Meat Glue…?”
boingboing.net “”Meat glue sounds kind of awesome”
Distilled opinion.wordpress.com “Do restaurants use more meat glue than what USDA recommends for beef and sausage sold in stores?”
foodsafetynews.com “EU Bans ‘Meat Glue’”