Slime and glue—two words that consumers don't want to see next to the word "meat"—have been propelled into the spotlight this year. Grossed-out carnivores and mass media attention have caused the latest meat offender to literally "stick" in Americans' consciousness, begging the question: How long before "meat glue" disappears from retail shelves?
The process may be fueled by a U.S. Department of Agriculture investigation into transglutaminase (TG), the powdery enzyme dubbed "meat glue" that's used to bind separate pieces of meat together. TG is "generally recognized as safe" or GRAS, by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but recently, Sen. Ted Lieu (D-CA) called for the investigation because of a potential public safety concern.
Lieu said better labeling of meat products is necessary because outer meat portions that are more susceptible to contamination may end up glued inside a larger meat piece, leading to food-borne illness if the meat is not properly cooked.
In a statement, American Meat Institute President and CEO J. Patrick Boyle said that "meat glue" is an inaccurate term meant to shock consumers, and that TG has been used for more than 20 years in dairy, seafood, bakery and meat products.
Beef: What's in it for dinner?
The current public outcry against "meat glue" is yet another indication that consumers are demanding transparency in the food system.
To make matters worse for the meat industry, last month the U.S. meat industry had its first case of mad cow disease in six years, originating from a California dairy cow. And in March, the public outcry against pink slime caused demand for ground beef to drop to the lowest amount for that month in a decade, reported Bloomberg.
As Tom Philpott reported in Mother Jones, the Environmental Working Group's "Skin Deep" cosmetics database lists TG as an ingredient in six hair-care products and categorizes it as a "low hazard" substance. So while the substance itself appears to pose no huge safety threat, a greater concern is cheap meat scraps masquerading as filet mignon.
The American Meat Institute confirmed this statement, releasing a fact sheet about TG [PDF], saying that TG is used to help "add value to smaller cuts of meat that on their own might have less value." Products containing TG must be listed in the ingredient statement and will also say "formed," "shaped" or "reformed" on the label. But when restaurants use TG, its customers don't know.
In his letter to the USDA, Sen. Lieu writes: “…As a matter of honesty and the consumer’s right to know—food suppliers, restaurants, and banquet facilities should not be deceiving the public into thinking they are eating a whole steak if, in fact, the steak was glued together from various meat parts."
The other true issue is food safety. Contaminated pieces of surface meat that are placed inside another cut will retain their pathogens unless fully cooked. Medium rare and rare, beware. If consumers aren't savvy about their reformed steak, they won't know how to properly cook it.
Do you think mainstream retailers will can the glue, just like they did pink slime?