First it was ‘pink slime’ in school lunches, then mad-cow disease in California, now it’s the use of transglutaminase (TG or TGase) in restaurants. It seems there is one thing after another that has consumers and the meat industry on edge these days.
New Worries About Safety of
Meats Served in Restaurants
TG, better known as ‘meat glue,’ is an enzyme that is able to bind proteins together. Pieces of raw meats bound with TG can be handled as if they were whole cuts. It comes in powder form and restaurants reportedly use it as a bonding agent for a number of purposes, including patching smaller meat scraps together to serve them as larger steaks. TG is also utilized for certain culinary creations like bacon-wrapped beef and the likes. After being cooked, the glue lines become invisible, so most consumers would not be able to spot them when their dish is served.
Chefs have long applied such techniques without them ever becoming an issue. So why is there this sudden attention? The current outcry is just another example of consumers not understanding what goes into their food, according to Dr. Michael Batz, a food safety researcher at the University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute. People simply don’t know what they are eating and it makes them nervous. Lack of transparency from the consumer’s perspective is what drives the discussion about TG use right now.
That is something that has to change, according to one senator from California, Ted W. Lieu, who has called for a government investigation into the potential health risks of TG. In a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the senator expressed concerns that ‘meat glue’ may be dangerous for consumers. As reported by the Los Angeles Times (5/2/2012), Mr. Lieu feared the practice of combining different meats could give rise to food-borne illnesses. The USDA has approved the use of TG as “generally safe.”
The senator’s worries are not completely unwarranted. The meat parts most exposed to bacteria during handling, transportation and storage are those on the outer surface. When meat is cooked, those contaminants are eliminated. But the center of the cut remains largely uncooked, especially if you like your steak rare or medium-rare. With single pieces this is generally not a problem. However, when several are glued together, bacteria can get on the inside and cause potential contamination.
While acknowledging the widespread use of TG in restaurant kitchens, a spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association (NRA) said the practice of combining smaller or inferior meat pieces together to sell them as bigger cuts of superior quality is not what reputable restaurants do. “It is illegal to misrepresent one cut of meat as another,” said Joan McGlockton, Vice President for Food Policy at the NRA. Considering the costs of TG, which is around 40 dollars a pound wholesale, it would also make little economic sense.
In terms of food safety, even glued-together meats pose no greater risk than so-called ‘non-intact’ cuts like blade-tenderized steaks or ground beef. If meat isn’t handled properly, transfer of bacteria is always a possibility.
Unlike in restaurants, the use of TG in meat products sold in supermarkets must be disclosed. “Formed” or “reformed” meats, as they are identified, have to list TG enzymes as an ingredient.