Meat glue, or transglutaminase, the new 'pink slime' among meat industry secrets

Substance found in intimation crab meat, sausage

CLEVELAND - You've likely seen the headlines in the past month about the pink meat filler known a pink slime. But the meat industry has another dirty, little secret: leftover pieces of meat stuck together and then sliced into whole cuts. It's called "meat glue."

Mark Fuller is the chef and owner of Ma'ono Fried Chicken and Whisky in Seattle.

"(It's) something I found interesting. (It's) something I like to play around with," Fuller said. Think you haven't eaten meat glue, or transglutaminase? It's in intimation crab meat, sausage, even cheese and yogurt as a thickener. It's an enzyme made by cultivating bacteria.

Fuller demonstrated how transglutaminase works by taking two pieces of skirt steak. He sprinkled the meat glue powder on the steak pieces and then married them together. He then wrapped the cut and refrigerated it overnight, allowing the powder to coagulate and then fuse the uneven pieces into perfectly-shaped steaks.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture insists transglutaminase is safe, but expert endocrinologist Dr. Bart Duell cautions that fused meats need to be cooked to at least 165 degrees to kill any bacteria. That's the temperature of a well-done steak.

"A rare cut or medium hasn't been heated to that temperature in the middle, so there's a small risk that you could get some kind of food-borne infection," Duell said.

Duell insists ground beef poses an even bigger risk than glued meat. That's because the ground meat has more total surface area where bacteria can grow.

Restaurants aren't required to tell you if you're eating glued meat, but product labels will have the words "transglutaminase," "formed" or "reformed."

Back at Ma'ono, the glued loin is cooked and rested. A slice down the middle reveals the slightest of seams. It's the only clue that this single piece of steak is not straight from the cow.

Chef Fuller has stopped using transglutaminase in his restaurant, saying you shouldn't need glue to get customers to stick around.

"It's a natural product, but it just doesn't feel natural to me," says Fuller.

Some chefs are purposefully using meat glue to cook creative cuisine. Instead of gluing skirt steak to skirt steak, they're fusing it with chicken, seafood or other meats. And one New York City chef is using meat glue to create pasta made from shrimp.

So how can you, as a consumer, know if you're eating meat glue?  Read labels, if you're in a restaurant, look for a meat glue seam, though it can be hard to spot and ask your waiter if the restaurant uses meat glue.  If you don't like the answer, don't eat the meat.

If you would like to learn more about transglutaminase, log onto the USDA website, http://www.usda.gov.

Portland and Seattle television stations KATU and KOMO contributed to this report. 

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