Every day, millions of Americans likely are putting something in their mouths that contains a substance called “meat glue” by critics of the food industry.
The additive with the unappetizing nickname is used to produce meats found in supermarkets, in local delis and in restaurants ranging from fast food to fine dining. Even vegetarian food isn’t exempt.
Marketing consultants and food scientists estimate — because no company will discuss sales figures — that 11 percent to 35 percent of all packaged and sliced ham, beef, chicken, fish, pizza toppings and other deli products are enhanced, restructured or molded using the meat glue, made from one of two brands of protein adhesive.
While federal laws require labeling, a spot-check of meat purveyors and restaurant suppliers found almost no companies listed the substances among their products’ ingredients.
Further, 10 meat and cold-cut processors and fast-food outlets — including Tyson Food, Cargill Meats, McDonald’s and Arby’s — were contacted, but all declined to discuss whether they used transglutaminase or blood-extract products, saying either it was proprietary, or, if they did use them, it need not be reported because the binders were considered a “processing aid.”
Like the “pink slime” used as a cheap ground-beef filler, meat glue is not considered a health risk by federal food watchdogs.
Nonetheless, consumers recently reacted with revulsion to the presence of pink-slime filler in ground meat, ultimately leading to the closing of three processing plants and the removal of the additive from some restaurants’ fare.
Whether meat glue will meet the same fate, the lack of disclosure is the same in critics’ eyes.
“For decades, the meat industry has conveniently operated in the dark, not sharing the dirty details of their practices with the public, while the federal government looked the other way,” said Michele Simon, a policy consultant for the Center for Food Safety. “But now, consumers are demanding to know the truth about what they are.”
One of the two most common forms of meat glue used in this country is Activa, a white powder form of a natural coagulantlike enzyme called transglutaminase. (The popular yogurt Activia has no connections to Activa.)
The other is Fibrimex, made of enzymes extracted from pig or beef blood by a process developed in The Netherlands.
Both products were designed and sold, their advertising says, to bond pieces of protein or irregularly shaped meat so it can be cut and cooked evenly by the food-service industry.
Truth in labeling
Food scientists say the two cold-binding agents are used to reduce use of sodium phosphate, sodium alginate, carrageenan, sodium caseinate and other chemicals that had been used for decades to form and mold meat.
Not knowing Activa and Fibrimex are in certain foods can present problems for people with religious and dietary beliefs or special needs.
How can Jews, Muslims and others who don’t eat pork products know whether pig-blood extracts are holding together their chicken or fish pieces?
What about vegans and vegetarians who might not want to eat “meatless” hot dogs, sausage and luncheon meats containing bovine blood or the fermented enzymes?
“There may be economic adulteration going on here, and the (Department of Agriculture) or the (Food and Drug Administration) needs to look at whether laws are being violated,” said Tony Corbo, legislative representative for the national consumer group Food & Water Watch.
“We are especially appalled that certain consumers’ religious beliefs may be unknowingly violated because food manufacturers are hiding what goes into the production of these binding agents.”
Meat glue drew attention last year when an Australian YouTube video showed a meat specialist sprinkling white powder on pieces of fat, gristle and other waste beef, covering it in plastic wrap and chilling it.
Hours later, the pieces had transformed into a long log of solid meat, which then was cut into expensive-looking tenderloins.
These cold-bonding agents are being used at the top and bottom of the food chain, from fine chefs to cut-rate meat purveyors.
Meat-glue additives also are used in thousands of other food products.
A partial list of uses for transglutaminase can be found on the website of Hela Spice Canada, a subsidiary of a major German food-additive and ingredient supplier, Hela, that exports to the U.S., and 10 other countries (www.helacanada.ca).
The site says different formulations of Activa can be used for fast-food chicken nuggets and boneless wings, fish sticks, boneless barbecue ribs, roast beef, pastrami, turkey roast and hams.
Major pizza chains buy the additive for toppings including pepperoni, Italian sausage, bacon crumble and salami, according to the website.
Supermarket-brand roasts, sausages, kebabs, hams, poultry pieces, pork, beef and many high-end cuts of beef and pork also contain it.
The website also emphasizes what food-design consultants say is a growing use of transglutaminase in vegetarian meat substitutes.
Walter Knecht, president of Hela Spice Canada, declined to comment.
He referred all inquiries to transglutaminase maker Ajinomoto, a Japanese company with offices in Chicago, which said in a statement that it discloses all ingredients.
Interviews with more than 60 industry or academic food scientists, physicians and government-safety regulators revealed other, unanticipated uses for the meat-glue additives.
These include imitation seafood, gyro meat, hundreds of baked goods, tofu, pasta, vegetables, cereals and dairy products such as yogurt. That use is growing, they add.
Still, as with pink slime, you won’t find meat glue on a list of ingredients.
More than 130 meats and deli products checked in Seattle, Milwaukee, Omaha and Denver in the past five months contained the adhesives mixtures, food scientists say.
Only four — all bolognas — had the word “enzymes” on the ingredient label.
But “enzymes,” “transglutaminase,” “thrombin” and “blood byproducts” were not listed on the labels for the remainder.
Regulations from the FDA and the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (USIS) list specific words that must appear on ingredient labels of products containing transglutaminase or the animal-blood extracts fibrinogen and thrombin.
In 2000, when federal officials first granted permission for Ajinomoto to market French-made transglutaminase in the United States, the USDA required the company tell consumers they were buying “beef tenderloin formed with water and transglutaminase enzyme,” according to USDA and FDA documents.
Ajinomoto balked; it wanted to say that its products were “formed” or “re-formed” or made with enzymes as part of the product name, such as “formed beef tenderloin.”
Ajinomoto, which in 1901 developed the sometimes-controversial flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate, or MSG, got its way.
Similar language was created for the blood-product maker Fibrimex to use on its products.
Rick Young, regional sales manager of Fibrimex maker FX Technologies in its Fremont, Neb., office, produced a copy of page 14 of USDA’s labeling bible, the Food Standard and Labeling Policy Book.
The book required phrases such as “Fibrinogen and Thrombin Plasma Protein” or “Bacon Wrapped Beef Tenderloin Steak Formed with Beef Fibrinogen and Thrombin.”
Both FX Technologies and Ajinomoto say they properly disclose the ingredients of their additives to their food-manufacturer customers. And they said it is their understanding that manufacturers are labeling their products correctly.
In a statement last week, the nutrition and health division of Ajinomoto said all meat to which transglutaminase has been added is labeled properly, as government regulations require.
“This is a requirement. There is no ‘secret,’ ” the statement said.
However, at the Institute of Food Technologists conference in New Orleans last June, Ajinomoto personnel repeatedly told potential customers their company has no way of demanding or forcing users of its transglutaminase to follow FDA or USIS labeling laws.