BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — It is a colorless, odorless and tasteless white powder called transglutaminase. It goes by many names, including "meat glue."
It is used for creative dishes by gourmet chefs and to fuse together scraps of meat, to form one solid piece. It is legal to use in the United States.
I recently did a Skype interview with an investigative writer for a website called Activistpost.com. Heather Callaghan is an outspoken meat glue critic and said consumers have been kept in the dark about its use.
"The safety issues that comes up isn't so much the ingredient," Callaghan says. 'My main concern is that a lot of people feel betrayed, they didn't know. They deserve the right to know."
Transglutaminase is classified by the USDA and the FDA as a "GRAS" product. GRAS stands for "generally recognized as safe" when used properly.
I interviewed Kern County's chief environmental health specialist Donna Fenton, who said, "TG is naturally occurring. It's found in bacteria and in plants and animals. What they are doing is taking that specific enzyme and using it as a binder or a glue to keep different forms of meat products that have protein, together."
Even though various articles say the use of transglutaminase could be dangerous due to higher bacteria levels in meat glued foods, Fenton says the enzyme itself is an antibacterial.
Callaghan has just written another article on meat glue, and says it would be tough to track the source of an E coli outbreak if several pieces of meat were stuck together, but adds, "So far we haven't heard any reports of it happening yet, but some people are very worried about it."
Fenton had tips for people trying this substance at home. She says you need to make sure the highest internal temperatures required for safe cooking has been reached.
But when ordering from a restaurant, how do you know that juicy steak you ordered is really one prime cut of meat and not several lesser quality pieces stuck together with meat glue? Some say, you can't. There are several state and federal laws in place geared toward protecting the consumer in grocery stores and restaurants.
The California Retail Food Code reads: "Food offered for human consumption shall be honestly presented in a way that does not mislead for misinform the consumer."
The FDA Food Code reads: "Food or Color Additives, colored overwraps, or lights may not be used to misrepresent the true appearance, color or quality of food."
The Sherman Food, Drug and Cosmetic Law reads: "Any food is misbranded if its labeling is false or misleading."
In California, these laws don't just apply to labels.
"Even in menu labeling, they have to indicate if it says it is a steak, it has to be a whole steak, it can't be formed from other pieces of meat," Fenton says. "If they are doing it in a restaurant, it has to be on the menu. If they use that binder to create that meat, it has to be indicated."
Why is banned from countries overseas? The European Parliament voted to ban this type of substance a few years ago, saying it had no proven benefit for consumers and might mislead them instead, according to a report by Healthy Freedom Alliance.
We called more than 20 Kern County businesses, including local and chain restaurants and butcher shops. All but one said they never heard of meat glue.
Local consumers had questions about the long-term health impact of using a substance like this.
"How long has this product been tested? How was it tested?" local consumer Keith Symonds asks.
Another consumer, Lauren Marsh, is worried about possible allergic reactions.
These are issues that Fenton says have merit, but, she says the only health issue found is that those with a gluten allergy may find themselves allergic to it, as well.
What can you do to make sure you are not getting a meat glued steak? Read the menu, read the label, and, when you dine out, Fenton says, "Ask them. If they lie to you, it is a violation."