Special Report: Meat Glue

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(Memphis)  Two pieces of meat are on a plate. 

It's hard to tell, but one is a filet and the other is a fake.

Believe or not, restaurants could be serving it, without customers detecting the difference. 

Neal Rousseau loves a good steak. "Porterhouse, filet, rib eye." So he's shocked when we show him how it's done.  "I'd be kind of disappointed, grossed out maybe," says Rousseau.

Chef Scott Delarme, Executive Chef at Simply Delicious Caterings, is talking about a product called transglutaminase, or TG, commonly referred to as meat glue, "The product itself is a naturally occurring meat enzyme, so it's not bad for you in any way, shape or form."

Delarme doesn't use meat glue at his business.

In fact, he's never worked with it, but we ordered some and he agreed to test it out.

The powdery substance is a bonding agent, and easily takes scraps to steak.

"This is all my trim. I took some of the meat glue which is a fine powder, coated it very well."

Then Delarme rolled up the meat to seal it, and let it chill.

Hours later, Delarme cooks both the filet and the fake.

We asked two of Delarme's employees, who didn't know which one was created with meat glue, to try them out. 

Delarme and I tested them as well.

The flavor was similar in both cuts, but the one made with the meat glue was tougher.

"If I sat down at the table and paid $50 for that, I would be mad," says Darius Hudson, a cook at Simply Delicious.

However, both testers admit they wouldn't assume they were eating meat that was bonded to together.

"If you were in a restaurant and you just ordered a steak and you got that, I don't think anyone would notice the difference," says Emilee Herrington, Account Executive of Simply Delicious.
That's where the potential problem lies.

"Someone selling a product that it really wasn't.  Selling a $20 filet for $6 worth of meat," says Delarme.

Besides consumers getting cheated, Delarme says this raises health concerns, "Any bacteria that could grow on the outside of a steak would be only on the outside, so when you take two or three separate pieces of meat and glue them together, you've introduced that bacteria into the center of the product."

Just hearing about the process makes some consumers furious.

"If I found out my steak was glued together, I'd be pretty upset," says Rousseau. That's the big question, how would you know if you were eating a fake steak?

The FDA considers TG safe for use in dozens of products, from processed foods to pastas. It has to be a listed ingredient and disclosed on the label. For example, a product might say "Formed Beef Tenderloin."

If you're in a restaurant, food safety officials say you should ask whether the menu item is a formed or re-formed product.

"That's a little disappointing that people would try to trick their customers into paying maybe a higher price for something that isn't the same quality," Herrington says.

However, advocates say this isn't happening. 

We spoke to someone at the American Meat Institute and they say they've "never seen any evidence" that meat glue is being used to take scraps to steak.    

They also say it's "rarely used in products you'd find in a grocery store."

According to the AMI, in restaurants, transglutaminase is mainly used to bind to two tenderloins, to create uniform portion sizes.
Delarme replicates a similar application to create a roulade from pieces of trout filet, "I don't think I would personally put three pieces together and call it a center cut salmon filet, I think that's wrong. Would I do a salmon roulade?  Yeah, because I'm not misrepresenting anything." 

For consumers, that's what it's all about. 

"I want to know what it is I'm paying for," says Lloyd Kimble.

Just to be clear, we haven't heard about any MidSouth restaurants using meat glue.

Industry advocates say it's been around for more than a decade and there haven't been any problems.