An Australian video pertaining to “meat glue” has been circulating around the interwebs recently, and because it (1) involves meat and (2) indicates some form of food processing or alteration occurs, it has resulted in multiple “outcries” regarding the use of transglutaminase and thrombin meat products. But first, the video causing this ruckus:
I was skeptical of the video from the get-go, and when the product was referred to as “transglutanimase” instead of transglutaminase, my skepticism was pretty much affirmed. Since then, I have encountered countless web pages calling out against this “dirty little secret.” Before cutting into the implications of “meat glue” use, a little background into how it works and how different forms are derived should be mentioned. The popular (and legal in the E.U.) form of “meat glue” is called transglutaminase (TG) and is produced by bacteria. Another form of “meat glue” is thrombin, which can be derived from cattle or pig blood, and is prohibited in some countries. Both are naturally-occuring enzymes that are used to otherwise “seamlessly” bind different pieces of meat and/or fish together by causing proteins to conjoin. Such enzymes can also be used in dairy products to alter texture, i.e. make them “thicker.” A thorough article, “The Trials of Transglutaminase,” explains many of of the misconceptions of TG and touches upon some of the other far-fetched concerns that have bubbled-up in the blogosphere.
Applications of “Meat Glue”
If one was to purchase a fresh meat item at the retail level made using “meat glue” in the United States, the word “formed” or “reformed” would have to be included on the label. This is per labeling rules regarding these binders. Products made using “meat glue” might include “value brand” steaks (this is how $2/lb ‘filets’ are possible, folks), imitation crab, fish sticks, and others. In the video and subsequent articles and/or opinion pieces pertaining to the subject, it was only subtly suggested that chefs use “meat glue” in some creative culinary applications. A simple example of TG use is bacon-wrapped [insert meat product], resulting in bacon that actually stays attached.
To the “prime cuts” point in the video, I do not know how or why anyone would consider a restructured and formed product to be a “prime cut.” Be aware that the regular prime cuts that you see in meat case at the supermarket such as sirloin, ribeye, and top loin steaks, roasts, filet mignons … are all single-ingredient, whole muscle cuts. The only instances in which it may not be a true single ingredient product is if it has been “enhanced” with a water, salt, and other ingredients — which even in that case is clearly written on the product label — or if it is in fact a “formed” product.
It is interesting how people speak so positively about Turducken but are somehow “shocked” by the culinary tool that is TG.
Why Use “Meat Glue” in the First Place?
There is a common skeptical thread uniting essentially every form of meat processing, whether it be mechanical separation (I’ve written about meat batter before), protein recovery using using pH swings (which I’ve also written about), and now TG. Those articles address questions, concerns, and skeptcism about technologies that were developed to utilize as much of an animal as possible. As a colleague pointed out to me (and I entirely agree), if we raise and kill an animal for human consumption and use, we then have an ethical obligation to make use of every bit of that animal, right down to the last hair or drop of blood. This (TG), like the other technologies, is a way to take otherwise underutilized and/or unwanted parts and turn them into some sort of desirable (at least to somebody) product. Otherwise, we would have just that much more ground/minced meat in the marketplace.
[As an aside, I am still baffled about “whole animal butchery” and the notion that somehow parts of an animal are wasted by the modern meatpacking industry. Mechanically deboning, pH modification, even TG binding are examples of whole-animal use that I imagine most DIY nose-to-tail people would or could not do.]
Some of the safety concerns presented in the video are legitimate, namely the explanation that such a restructured “steak” or “chop” would have to be treated (as in, cooked to the same safe temperature as…) ground meat. What was once on the outside of the meat could now be internalized in the new “prime cut.” This is safety concern for the same reason that processes like blade tenderization are a concern.
Which All Somehow Reminds Me Of …
…glue made from animals. An adhesive is something adheres two objects together, not necessarily creating a seamless, interconnected bond such as TG does between two proteinaceous items. Anyway, ever hear the saying, in reference to an old animal, “It’s off the the glue factory for you?” I grew up on a farm and my great-grandparents were around until I was a teenager, so we were no strangers to such expressions. I was probably one of the few, if not the only, kid in kindergarten who wondered if the Elmer’s glue logo (a bull) meant that they used bull hooves, horns and hides to make glue (on Elmer’s website it states that today they do not use any animal products in their glue). In my mind, animal glue is more closely related to the phrase “meat glue” than TG is to “meat glue.”